WASHINGTON – When a party loses the White House, a new crop of presidential hopefuls typically begin moving quickly to lay the groundwork for a run in the next campaign.
Not this year.
President Donald Trump's increasingly overt flirtations with running again in 2024 are freezing the potentially vast field of Republican candidates. GOP White House hopefuls are essentially left to watch what Trump does next instead of courting fundraisers, building networks and visiting early-voting states — the usual campaign planning steps — for fear of angering Trump and risking turning off his large and loyal base.
And that's just the way the president likes it, ensuring he stays in the spotlight and generating the cash and media coverage he craves. But strategists say Trump is essentially leaving the party in a holding pattern, with could-be-candidates unable to prepare as they try to avoid crossing a notoriously unforgiving president who has an enormous Twitter bullhorn and little tolerance for perceived disloyalty.
“Trump is delaying the start of the 2024 campaign in a significant way,” said Alex Conant, a Republican operative who served as communications director to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. In a normal campaign cycle, Conant said, “you would see potential presidential candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire this month.” This year, “That’s not going to happen because nobody wants to be seen as challenging Trump.”
Grover Cleveland was the last — and so far only — president to win the White House after being defeated for reelection, and that was more than a century ago. Trump has been increasingly vocal about his desire to follow that path.
“I don't want to wait till 2024. I want to go back three weeks," he said at a rally Saturday evening in Georgia. That followed comments during a White House Christmas party this past week when Trump said, "We’re trying to do another four years. Otherwise, I’ll see you in four years."
Such overtures are particularly problematic for the current and former administration officials considered among the likely contenders, including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump's former ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley.
But they also affect the long list of other Republicans who would need to win over large swaths of Trump's base to capture the GOP nomination. That includes Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Rick Scott of Florida. Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, who is also seen as a potential candidate, has already said he will support Trump if he runs again.
“The reality is they all need to go along with it because they know if it’s in two years or six years, whenever they look at running again, the absolute worst thing you can be among primary voters in against Donald Trump,” said Brendan Buck, a Republican strategist who worked for the last two Republican speakers of the House.
“It’s in all of their interests to point out Trump is a loser," he said, and yet, "most of them are tripping over themselves,” trying to deny that.
One person who could benefit from Trump's maneuvering is Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who has emerged as one of Trump's fiercest critics during the coronavirus pandemic. His supporters argue that if Trump did run, Hogan would enjoy a near-open lane unlike the one crowded with Trump defenders.
“There are going to be 10 or 15 people who want to be the next Donald Trump and very few people that want to go in a different direction from Trump,” Hogan said in a recent interview. The governor, who has urged Trump to concede to Democrat Joe Biden for the good of the party, has bolstered his profile with a book tour and frequent television appearances.
Hogan doesn't think Trump will ultimately pull the trigger on another run. While he acknowledged Trump's popularity with the Republican base, he argued that this year's election results made clear that Americans are looking less for another Trump and more for “commonsense conservative people that were willing to work across the aisle.”
”You know, we had a good night for Republicans other than the president,” Hogan said of the Nov. 3 election results. “It wasn’t a rejection of all Republicans or wholesale acceptance of far left policies."
Some Republicans believe the president's freeze is a good thing, staving off internal fighting among the many contenders who had been expected to consider running.
Others worry that Trump is preventing Republicans from engaging in a postelection reckoning about the future of the party that usually comes with defeat. That would typically involve looking at why the party lost and what it should do differently to win back voters.
That has been exacerbated by Trump's refusal to accept the election results and his baseless claims of mass voter fraud that have clouded the reality of Biden’s decisive win.
“Despite a historic loss, there has been absolutely no introspection in the party. And to the contrary, the leaders in waiting are doubling down" on Trump’s appeal-to-the-base kind of politics, Buck said.
There's skepticism that Trump, who toyed with running numerous times before 2016, will go through with another campaign. But his dangling of the prospect will help keep him in the spotlight and raise money he can use to travel and curry additional favor.
He has already raised more than $200 million since his Election Day defeat, with a chunk of that money going to his new political committee, thanks to an endless stream of solicitations requesting contributions for an “election defense fund.”
“His agenda is to use these recounts and lawsuits to raise money, to have money to freeze the field in 2024 and to be an effective surrogate and spreader of money in 2022,” said GOP donor Dan Eberhart.
For now, the 2024 prospects are largely keeping their heads down and turning their attention to Georgia where a pair of runoff elections next month will determine which party controls the Senate. Pence was in the state Friday and Trump on Saturday, following visits by Rubio, Cotton, Scott and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott. Haley and others also have been raising money.
After that, focus will likely turn to 2022 as potential candidates try to boost their profiles by assisting candidates in competitive House, Senate and statehouse races.
But the lack of overt jockeying to date has dumbfounded Trump critics.
“This is when people should be jumping in the ring, fighting against him, making the argument that it’s time for the party to move away from him," said Jennifer Horn, the former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party. “If they are scared off by Donald Trump’s bluster at this stage in the game after seeing the way that he lost, then they should not even be thinking of running."
And Michael Steel, a Republican strategist, wondered how long the freeze might last.
“The obvious assumption is that his potential candidacy freezes the race, that he dominates the field like a colossus and sort of smothers any other Republican presidential efforts. There’s also a possibility, given financial challenges, potential legal challenges, and the undignified way that he has conducted himself since the election, where he is a substantially diminished figure in the not too distant future,” he said, citing Sarah Palin as an example of a once-Republican star who became a marginal figure far more quickly than many expected.
Associated Press writer Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina, and Alan Fram contributed to this report.