Five days after a disappointing midterm election result and two days before former president Donald Trump is expected to announce a 2024 presidential bid, Republicans are grappling with an almost existential quandary: Who can lead the party to a post-Trump future?
In private conversations among donors, operatives and other 2024 presidential hopefuls, a growing number of Republicans are trying to seize what they believe may be their best opportunity to sideline Trump and usher in a new generation of party leaders.
Many blame Tuesday’s midterm results — Republicans were unable to take over the Senate and made smaller-than-expected gains in the House — on the former president, who during the primaries elevated extremist candidates who fared poorly in the general election. The discouraging election outcomes, combined with Trump’s 2020 loss to Biden, have increased both public and private talk of considering a post-Trump world.
Many of the party’s top donors are actively trying to back other candidates and are tired of Trump, according to Republican officials and operatives in touch with them, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose private conversations.
Get the latest 2022 election updates
End of carousel
Many donors and operatives are already raving over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who has fashioned himself as a Trump-lite Republican and cruised to a nearly 20-point victory over Democrat Charlie Crist on Tuesday night, flipping Miami-Dade County — a heavily Hispanic, densely populated county that has not been won by a Republican gubernatorial candidate in two decades.
Other potential Republican candidates — from former New Jersey governor Chris Christie to former vice president Mike Pence to Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin — are also quietly taking stock of what their own presidential bids might look like.
“The issue set was clearly in our favor — on inflation, on the border, on crime — and yet we failed to meet expectations,” said Marc Short, Pence’s former chief of staff. “The question is: Are there different candidates out there where the issue set still works, but with a different style that is also more in our favor?”
A Trump spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Uncertainty also looms over the Republicans eager to move beyond Trump. After all, Trump’s poor showing Tuesday and the calls for him to recede have echoes of previous moments when Trump seemed politically doomed, only to resuscitate himself: The early days of his first presidential bid, when he dismissed the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a Vietnam prisoner of war, as “not a real war hero;” the final days of his 2016 campaign, when an “Access Hollywood” tape emerged showing Trump crudely boasting about groping women; and in the aftermath of the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack, when Trump, having lost the presidency, encouraged his supporters to march on the U.S. Capitol.
Now, with Trump signaling he plans to announce his 2024 campaign on Tuesday, some Trump skeptics worry that alighting on a successful message to defeat him in their party’s primary is almost Sisyphean.
But others, like Christie, who unsuccessfully challenged Trump in the 2016 Republican primary, say that while the former president’s policies are generally popular, the pitch for defeating him is also simple: Trump is a loser who is dragging the rest of the party down with him.
“How about this? When Donald Trump won in 2016, he said we were going to get so tired of winning we would ask him to stop winning so much,” Christie said. “In 2018, we lose the House. In 2020, we lose the Senate and the White House. In 2021, we lose two winnable [Senate] seats in Georgia. And in 2022, we vastly underperform historic norms given inflation and gas prices and crime and a president at 40 percent. I’m tired of losing.
“The only winning that has been done since Donald Trump has been president is for Donald Trump,” Christie concluded. “That’s what you tell people.”
Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, says the party’s electorate can be divided into three key buckets. A small group, roughly 10 percent, are “Never Trumpers,” Republicans who have long and vocally opposed Trump. A far larger group, about 40 percent, are “Always Trumpers,” his hardcore base that will never abandon him.
The remaining 50 percent or so, Ayres said, are “Maybe Trumpers” — Republicans who voted for him twice, who generally like his policies but who are now eager to escape the chaos that accompanies him.
“So they are open to supporting someone else who will do much of what they want without all of the baggage,” Ayres said. “So then the question becomes: Who?”
In addition to DeSantis — the current Republican infatuation — the list of hopefuls is growing. Pence’s new book, “So Help Me God,” will come out on Tuesday, the same day as Trump’s expected announcement, and Pence’s aides have said the former vice president plans to make a decision about running sometime this spring and will not be influenced by what Trump does.
Larry Hogan, the outgoing Republican Maryland governor, has said he’s interested in exploring a 2024 run, and he is hosting a Nov. 30 gathering in Annapolis to discuss both what he’s accomplished and what his future looks like.
And Youngkin — whose 2021 victory in a state Biden had won by 10 points the year before put him on the radar of donors — spent the midterms traveling the country campaigning for Republicans and growing his base of support. At the end of September, he hosted a “Red Vest Retreat” for donors at a luxury resort outside Charlottesville, which was widely seen as a prelude to Youngkin’s announcing a presidential campaign.
At the retreat, former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich told the crowd that three potential 2024 candidates had separated themselves from the pack: Trump, DeSantis and Youngkin.
“There are a lot of talented people out there, but if you are looking at people who are sending the signals that matter, you would have to say it is Trump, and then at a considerable distance less it is DeSantis, and then at a distance less it is Youngkin,” Gingrich said later.
Other Republicans generating some 2024 speculation include Christie; Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina and U.N. ambassador under Trump; Mike Pompeo, former CIA director and secretary of state under Trump; and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who hinted at his higher aspirations during his victory speech Tuesday night.
Scott, who is Black, talked about how his grandfather voted for former president Barack Obama’s reelection. “I wish he had lived long enough to see perhaps another man of color elected president of the United States,” Scott said. “But this time let it be a Republican.”
Pence and Pompeo, in particular, have been meeting with Trump donors nonstop, said a Republican in touch with many potential 2024 candidates.
Several Trump advisers said the former president viewed DeSantis and Youngkin — both of whom he has publicly lashed out at in recent days — as among his most formidable political rivals, and has smarted for more than a year at what he sees as Youngkin’s overly positive media coverage. Trump thinks his support for both of them helped propel them to victory and they have not been sufficiently grateful, one person close to Trump said.
Trump is trying to secure a big turnout for his anticipated announcement at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida Tuesday night, and members of Congress, RNC members, longtime allies and others have received invitations. The desire is to draw a big crowd to show political strength, and Trump is taking note of who is coming and who isn’t, a top adviser said.
Bobbie Kilberg, a top Republican donor in Virginia, said she would support a number of non-Trump candidates — with Christie and Hogan as her favorites.
“Donald Trump needs to go away, period,” Kilberg said. “He has shown yet again that he basically cares only about himself and not about the future of the Republican Party. If it doesn’t change, we are going to have a really sad state of affairs.”
She added that post-midterms, she has been flooded with emails from fellow Republicans saying that now is DeSantis’s moment. And, she said, “I am hearing from people who are saying they no longer have faith in Trump that he can lead the Republican Party because he cannot win and he should not win.”
Later this week, Christie, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), DeSantis, Haley, Hogan, Pence, Pompeo, Scott, and Youngkin will all address the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual meeting in Las Vegas — the first major opportunity after the midterms for them to present themselves as alternatives to Trump.
“There is no question that Trump has a set of hardcore supporters who will be with him no matter what, but there are a group of people who may end up being with Trump but are looking to see what other options are out there,” said Matt Brooks, the coalition’s executive director, referring to the party’s top donors. “There are a lot of people in the store browsing right now.”
Some of the frustration with the poor Republican showing Tuesday broke into the open after a call that Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel convened with the committee’s members Wednesday afternoon. McDaniel, who spoke for about 10 minutes, claimed the election had been a success because the party was on track to take back the House and did not take any questions because she had a television appearance scheduled on Fox News, according to participants.
In an email that Bill Palatucci, a member of the Republican National Committee from New Jersey, sent McDaniel after the call, he called her remarks “disappointing” and warned that “being unwilling to address the reality of the situation does no one any good.”
“You have worked hard over the past two years, and we all appreciate the time you took away from your family to work towards victory yesterday,” Palatucci wrote in the email, which was obtained by The Washington Post. “But we have to face the fact that most of our candidates and the party in general underperformed by any objective measure.”
In an interview, Palatucci, a longtime Trump critic, was similarly critical.
“I think we do have to be honest with ourselves about candidates who were chosen and the interaction with the former president and how our vast resources were spent or misallocated,” he said. “We did not have a great night … The results of Tuesday are full of implications for 2024 and I have been very clear for a long time that we have to be a party beyond the personality of Donald Trump. And I think Tuesday night proved that.”
McDaniel responded to Palatucci’s email by telling him that she was always available to take questions and planned to do a “better analysis” of the results once the votes were counted.
“I think winning back the house is a big win. The Senate is still in play,” she wrote to Palatucci. “I have consistently said not to use the phrase red wave because we won so many house seats in 2020 and redistricting made the competitive house map much smaller.”
A clear strategy to bypass Trump heading into 2024 remains murky, at best. One prominent Republican in touch with both Trump and DeSantis’s teams said there is an effort afoot among some allies to broker an uneasy detente between the two men.
Trump advisers say they have been surprised at the fierce blowback the former president has engendered from attacking DeSantis. And while DeSantis is the top choice of many donors looking for a Trump alternative, some Republicans are encouraging him to hold off and are not convinced that he will actually run, one top Republican operative said.
“If you shoot at the king and you miss, you’re damaged,” the person said.
Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump GOP strategist who has been conducting regular focus groups with Republican voters, said the challenge DeSantis and others face is dispatching a former president who is still popular with huge swaths of the party. When she conducted focus groups of Republicans earlier this year, as House hearings on the Jan. 6 attack dominated the news, she said most would-be voters still didn’t plan to abandon Trump — but did show a newfound willingness to consider other candidates.
“The tough thing for DeSantis is the voters talk about how DeSantis is like Trump,” Longwell said. “What they like is that he’s a fighter and he’s yelling at people, and it’s very clear that Ron DeSantis’s whole brand is a Trump imitation … The question is: What happens when he goes head-to-head with the guy he’s imitating?”
Meanwhile, many Republicans are also still trying to come to grips with an expected red wave that became a low red tide, barely lapping at the ankles of Democrats. Gingrich said he had been shaken by the results on Tuesday, which he is still sorting through.
“I feel like a guy whose compass is so goofed up I have no idea which way is north,” Gingrich said.
Isaac Arnsdorf contributed to this report.