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2024 GOP slate starts to take shape

Anticipated challengers will test Republicans’ loyalty to the former president

Donald Trump in Salem, N.H., Jan. 28 Associated Press/Photo by Reba Saldanha

2024 GOP slate starts to take shape

Former President Donald Trump flew to New Hampshire last weekend to address an annual Republican Party meeting, hoping to recruit local leaders to his campaign. The state usually holds one of the earliest primaries in the presidential election cycle. The former New Hampshire GOP chair, Stephen Stepanek, resigned to join the Trump 2024 campaign. But vice chair Pamela Tucker signed on with the super political action committee Ron to the Rescue, whose staffers were already in the state drumming up support for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Tucker was signing up volunteers to help out DeSantis’ expected presidential campaign.

At his speech in a high school auditorium, Trump attacked his presumptive challenger and addressed rumors about his slow campaign rollout so far, saying, “I am more angry now and I am more committed than I ever was.”

As for DeSantis, Trump called him a “COVID skeptic phony” for initially closing beaches in Florida due to the pandemic and then questioning the efficacy of vaccines. The two men have similar conservative platforms, but Trump says that is because he handpicked the governor.

“He won’t be leading, I got him elected,” he told crowds in New Hampshire. “When I hear that he might [run], I think it’s very disloyal.”

As critics within the Republican Party challenge Trump’s campaign to take back the White House, conservatives who supported the former president are weighing their options and taking sides.

Nikki Haley, former South Carolina governor and ambassador to the United Nations, could be the first Republican to declare she is running against her former boss at a “special announcement” scheduled for Feb. 15. Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, recently released a memoir and has made tour stops in key electoral states like Florida. A group of Michigan delegates hand-delivered a letter to DeSantis asking him to run for the Republican presidential nomination.

The 2024 election cycle officially began in November when Trump filed paperwork to launch a third campaign. He hosted his first rallies last weekend at smaller venues compared to events in 2016 and 2020 that drew thousands. His speech for the state party meeting in New Hampshire was only announced days before. And Trump packed roughly 200 attendees into the rotunda of the South Carolina State House.

Most aggregate polls show Trump leading presumptive challengers by more than 15 points. But Alex Olson, Florida resident and co-founder of Ron to the Rescue, said that DeSantis’ coming within as few as 5 points of Trump this early on is a good sign. DeSantis won his second term by more than 20 points in Florida and appealed broadly to white, suburban women and Hispanic voters, both problem demographics for the GOP. In a straw poll with Students for Life of America, DeSantis netted more than 53 percent while Trump gained only 19. This came after Trump said the pro-life movement contributed to Republican losses during the midterm elections.

A Quinnipiac poll conducted in late November found DeSantis and Trump even in party support. When Republicans were presented with a test nomination ballot between the two, 44 percent preferred each candidate. Eleven percent refused to choose.

Jeanne Seaver, a longtime political consultant and leader of pro-Trump groups in Georgia met DeSantis in 2018 during his first gubernatorial run. His military record, conservative platform, and “salt-of-the-earth” character impressed her. But she does not think he should run against Trump.

“It is disloyal and a slap in the face,” she told me. “If you say ‘I’m with [Trump],’ then you stick with him. If you’re considering a run, you go and talk with them face-to-face. Trump was loyal until he was stabbed in the back. And Pence, Haley, they’ve all been disloyal.”

André Bauer, former lieutenant governor of South Carolina, shook hands and spoke with Trump briefly before Trump took the stage in the State House last weekend. Bauer had just been named to the campaign’s 2024 South Carolina leadership team. He is no stranger to canvassing his home state, which has turned definitively red in his two decades in politics. He said South Carolina voters will flock to Trump, even if Haley, their former governor, runs.

“Folks like Nikki Haley have some popularity, but President Trump will win the South Carolina primary and it won’t be close,” Bauer said to me. “The president definitely has a different way of governing, which a lot of people don’t appreciate. But I’ve seen a lot of people with a lot of eloquence in how they dealt with things, and their results stunk.”

Seaver admitted Trump’s campaign strategy so far confuses her. She didn’t even hear about the campaign stop in South Carolina. She said the most persistent message Trump supporters receive are donation requests via email and text. Seaver said she wants Trump to be president again, but she also wants to hear him give firm plans, not arguments for why others should not run.

Seaver also said that even if DeSantis was a strong candidate, he is young and has time to run for higher office later. Trump will be 78 years old by the November 2024 election. Biden will be nearly 82. Olson with Ron to the Rescue said that is exactly why DeSantis, 44, should run. Olson pointed to DeSantis’ early reopening of the state during the COVID-19 pandemic, his push against critical race theory in schools, and his speaking ability as evidence that “he’s not afraid to be conservative but also make it digestible.”

“I want someone who represents me and my values,” he said. “We have folks who have been in the swamp for so many years and are 80 years old, building their careers off the taxpayer. … Personally, I think DeSantis is the best governor in the country. Strategically, he’s the only outlet to make the Republican Party electable again.”

DeSantis started his second term as governor in January by shaking up education in Florida and cracking down on what he calls the “woke agenda.” When asked about Trump’s criticisms, the governor offered a not-so-subtle jab at the former president’s 2020 loss.

“I roll out of bed and have people attacking me from all angles, it’s been happening for many, many years. The good thing is that people are able to render a judgment on that, whether they reelect you or not,” DeSantis said at a news conference on Tuesday. “That verdict has been rendered by the people of the state of Florida.”

Carolina Lumetta

Carolina is a WORLD reporter and a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Wheaton College. She resides in Washington, D.C.


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