By STEVE PEOPLE, AP National Political Writer
LAS VEGAS (AP) — Memories of the turbulent 2016 Republican primary hung over the Las Vegas ballroom this weekend during the first major gathering of the party’s potential candidates for the 2024 nomination.
No fewer than 10 White House prospects took the stage to unveil their plans to repair the nation – and their party. Details varied, but an extraordinary sense of defiance was evident in most of the speeches, rarely seen since former President Donald Trump took control of the Republican Party six years ago.
Her central message: Trump can and should be beaten.
Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, vowed in April that she would not challenge the former president if he were to run again. But on Saturday night, as she faced hundreds of cheering Republicans, she vowed to give “1,000%” to an offer from the White House if she decided to step in.
“I’ve never lost an election and I’m not going to start now,” she said as the crowd roared.
But as donors and activists gathered for the Republican Jewish Coalition’s two-day leadership conference applauded, perhaps none cheered louder than Trump himself from his Florida estate.
Trump’s team, along with a growing number of concerned donors and Republican activists, believe the GOP’s emboldened 2024 class may already be inadvertently restoring the conditions that made Trump’s success in 2016 possible. That year, a crowded Republican field fragmented the primary electorate and allowed Trump to become the party’s presidential nominee despite receiving 35% or less of the vote in each of the first three primaries.
In the early days of the 2024 season, the parallels to 2016 are uncanny.
At the time, Trump was viewed with suspicion within his party, and his standing has been severely weakened after several loyalists lost winnable races in this month’s midterm elections. And above all, a parade of ambitious Republicans is lining up to take on him.
A small but growing group of Republican activists is warning Trump’s critics that the only way to defeat him is to rally behind a much smaller group of alternatives.
Eric Levine, a New York-based donor who attended the weekend rally, urged his party not to accept more than two or three candidates — and to move with genuine urgency.
“I don’t think we have the luxury of waiting,” said Levine, who has raised millions of dollars for Republicans in recent years and only began speaking out against Trump after the midterms. “If he becomes a Republican brand, the party will be destroyed.”
For now, at least, Trump’s rivals don’t seem to be heeding his warning.
The most popular alternative to Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, is unlikely to enter the race until late spring, his allies say. But in his keynote address on Saturday night, he left little doubt that he was thinking of 2024.
“There is no substitute for victory in times like these,” DeSantis said, repeatedly citing his overwhelming mid-term success in Florida. “We still have a lot to do and I’ve only just started to fight.”
And in a series of interviews, several other potential Republican candidates and their aides said they would likely wait until next spring or summer to enter the race should they decide to run. That’s true even after Trump officially launched his 2024 campaign last week.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who isn’t ruling out a 2024 run, said Trump’s early announcement didn’t create a sense of urgency; it merely highlighted his weakened political standing.
“I think we all understand how little impact he will have,” Sununu said in an interview. “He doesn’t scare anyone. If you want to run, you will run. It will be fun. It will be an open race.”
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said it was far too early to worry about winning the field.
“I think more votes, more potential decisions,” said Hogan, who is openly considering a 2024 bid after his term expires in January. “Trump needs to be tested. People have to go out there and be ready to stand up to him.”
Hogan continued, “I don’t think anyone will listen to narrowing the field. Everyone will say, “I should be the guy, I should be the guy, we should all be the guy.”
Christie, a failed 2016 presidential candidate who then led Trump’s transition to the White House that year, said he ultimately expects seven or eight main candidates to enter the race, “which compares to the 16 who ran against Trump in 2016 , is “manageable”.
“A lot of these people are fishing out of the Trump pond,” Christie said, implying that prospects like DeSantis and Mike Pompeo are “MAGA guys” who would steal support from Trump’s base in a way that created opportunities for others — like him — creates .
Christie dismissed any talk of scouring the field so early.
“Should we all rally behind someone? well who? I don’t think there’s an obvious choice,” Christie said.
Trump’s advisers initially hoped that he could clear the field with his early announcement. They now believe a crowded field will help him by dividing the anti-Trump vote – just as it did in 2016. Trump won the New Hampshire and South Carolina primary elections that year by just 35% and 32% of the vote, respectively. Seven others shared the overwhelming majority of the votes.
Trump’s team notes that in key 2022 primary elections from Arizona to New Hampshire to Pennsylvania, his loyalists have won their GOP nominations by between 30% and 40% of the vote — a base of support she believes will last among the 2024 primaries continue to be his word.
Former New Hampshire GOP chairwoman Jennifer Horn, who led the state party in 2016, said the growing list of likely candidates for 2024 “should know better this time around.”
“You’re nurturing the very environment Trump needs to win,” Horn warned. “If past is prologue, we all have cause for concern.”
And while there were signs of Trump fatigue at the weekend conference call, Trump received a warm welcome when he appeared via conference call on Saturday. The crowd cheered loudly as he noted his success in moving the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
But there was a notable silence as he reiterated his unsubstantiated claims about his 2020 election defeat.
“The election was rigged. And it’s a shame it was, and Israel lost a lot,” Trump said before the crowded ballroom. “You better hope that in 2024 a certain person wins the election.”
And with Trump already a declared candidate, some activists fear it’s much later than his challengers think.
The first presidential primary debate could be just nine months away using the 2016 presidential primary as a guide. By the summer of 2015, 17 candidates were already in the running.
One of them was Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who is considering another run in 2024.
Speaking to reporters in Las Vegas, Cruz said Trump and his supporters deserved some of the blame for the weaker-than-expected midterm election results. “I get frustrated when my party puts forward candidates without a realistic chance of success,” Cruz said.
But when asked about the 2024 presidential campaign, Cruz said there are only multiple candidates who are “clearly in favor of running” against Trump. “I believe that the voters can and should regulate that.”
Pompeo, Trump’s former secretary of state, who is among those positioning himself to run for office, repeatedly slapped the former president on stage this weekend without directly naming himself. Instead, Pompeo said conservatives deserve leaders “who fight for them, not for us or our own egos.”
And he acknowledged the upcoming 2024 primary.
“Who knows, next time we’re together we might be on the stage, multiple podiums,” Pompeo said. “Who knows who else might be there and what nicknames we’ll have?”