Others were less directly critical but no less bold, hinting at their ambitions to challenge Trump for the 2024 Republican nomination. Former members of the Trump administration positioned themselves as heirs to his agenda, with one of them – former UN ambassador Nikki Haley – expressing serious interest in a 2024 bid, despite once ruling out a clash with Trump. And Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis got a rockstar reception when he announced his landslide re-election and addressed the issues fueling Trump’s base without mentioning the former president.
Their pitches at the RJC event — an unofficial kick-off of the presidential primary season — made it clear that Republicans are not afraid of Trump and even excited about the contest, as disappointing interim results have sparked a cascade of hand-wringing and finger-picking. points to the party.
They also revealed a range of theories about how to face Trump in 2024, underscoring an increasingly public debate in the GOP about how to beat Trump. Republicans are divided on whether it’s wise to attack Trump head on, even as they echo similar eligibility messages. Potential candidates and donors are already debating the importance of rallying around one person to prevent a repeat of 2016, when Trump prevailed in a crowded field.
Sununu said in an interview that as governor of one of the nation’s first primary states, he plans to take responsibility for urging laggards to exit.
“People want to continue, there’s no doubt about that,” said Sununu, who does not rule out his own run and said of Trump: “He will have to fight for it like everyone else.”
Some potential Republican candidates — including former Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) — have criticized last week’s announcement of a special counsel for the criminal investigation into Trump’s conduct. But Republicans have rallied around Trump not nearly as vociferously as they did in August, when the FBI raided Mar-a-Lago while investigating the former president’s handling of classified documents.
“I don’t think he’s going to be unchallenged,” Cruz said this weekend, shortly after opening his Las Vegas speech with a question, “How do we win?”
At a private dinner Thursday for RJC donors and VIPs, Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel said Republicans need to avoid factions and unite like family, according to several in attendance. Speaking after McDaniel, Christie picked up the metaphor — saying the family needs to work things out.
“We need to have this discussion openly,” Christie said in his public statements Saturday, further criticizing Trump’s long, unique influence over the party. “We must have this family fight. And we must have it now.”
Others clung to implicit contrasts – and presented themselves as effective campaigners on issues Trump has raised. DeSantis, a former Trump ally who served as the RJC’s grand finale speaker on Saturday night, received his biggest round of applause when he noted changes to Florida’s election laws that were part of a wave of Republican-led policies amid Trump’s bogus claims , he lost the 2020 election due to widespread fraud.
Viewers got up to film with cellphones. Crowding around the stage, the students reached out to shake hands with DeSantis.
“I really don’t see the mainstream wing of the Republican Party coming back,” said Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary in the George W. Bush administration. “Not in this cycle. I see a legitimate fair fight that can take place over this populist outsider element that is now the new dynamic of the republican-conservative movement.”
Fleischer predicted that in the end only a few “brave” would stand against Trump. And while he expected some “more liberal Republicans” to run — he declined to identify whom he meant — he flatly said they didn’t stand a chance.
A growing urge to oust Trump was evident last week at another GOP meeting — a Republican Governors Association meeting in Florida. GOP donor Bobbie Kilberg recalled standing up in a session to call the former president a “clear and present threat to the future of the Republican Party.” Christie got a standing ovation for similarly harsh criticism, she said.
Hogan, whose Las Vegas speech highlighted his ability to win in decidedly blue Maryland, said governors paid little attention to Trump’s presidential announcement, which unfolded at their meeting. “I later came back to the hotel room after those events and could barely find it on TV when I changed the channel,” he said in an interview.
Doubts extend even to supporters of Trump’s false claim that the 2020 election was stolen. Lew Sanders, a local Arizona GOP official who reiterates Trump’s election claims, said he will support DeSantis “without question” in 2024 — and has heard from many concerned Republicans that Trump is hurting their chances in the midterm election. “I’ve heard it so many times I want to throw up,” he said.
Andy Sabin — who has donated to Trump’s 2020 re-election bid and has said he’s poured about $1 million into Republican mid-term efforts that year — blasted Trump’s choice of support in an interview. He said he will support “everyone but Trump” for the 2024 presidential nomination, echoing other big donors who have fretted over the 45th president.
Trump almost canceled an appearance at the RJC’s three-day convention but was included in the program late last week after announcing his third bid for the White House. A Trump meeting with top RJC supporters was previously discussed but never materialized, according to a person familiar with the planning, citing scheduling difficulties. A Trump spokesman did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Trump card focused his remarks Saturday on restoring his administration’s policies, which Biden had reversed, saying at one point, “The future goes back in time a little bit in a way.”
The virtual speech resulted in an unusually stiff performance from Trump, who stood in front of flags at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida and kept glancing sideways, unable to read the room. Trump repeatedly returned to his false claims of fraud in the 2020 election — a refrain conspicuously absent from his announcement speech Tuesday and one that Republicans have increasingly denounced as damaging to the party.
Still, Trump received a standing ovation for mentioning his administration’s policies towards Israel, notably moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and brokering a diplomatic deal between Israel and other countries, including Bahrain and the United States United Arab Emirates.
Trump also warned some American Jews not to appreciate Israel and reiterated his October social media post, which the White House condemned as anti-Semitic. At the RJC session, he received applause.
Trump advisers have dismissed his potential rivals as runners-up and past-timers languishing in early polls. A crowded field could work to his advantage by dividing the opposition, as in 2016.
But six years ago, none of the other candidates wanted to challenge Trump directly, which is clearly not the case this time. Even Trump’s closest allies at the RJC conference did not rush to his defense. Rep. Max Miller-elect, a former White House aide who won a congressional seat in Ohio with Trump’s help and immediately backed Trump for president, praised “the greatest president of our lives” but focused on the Biden in a speech Saturday – to criticize the government.
National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who lost 37-10 in a Trump-backed challenge against Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell last week, declined to say whether Trump is in Georgia campaigning for Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker should be in next month’s outflow.
Haley, the former United Nations Ambassador under Trump, backed out blaming “one person” or poor candidates for disappointments during the halftime, instead blaming Republican infighting and deficits in fundraising and early voting. “We have to look in the mirror,” she said in a speech on Saturday. “We’re behind the times.”
She said she has “more to say soon” about a possible 2024 bid — and has the infrastructure ready for a presidential campaign whenever she makes her decision, according to a person familiar with the planning.
Senator Tim Scott (RS.C.) sidestepped Trump’s hand-wringing altogether and used his Las Vegas appearance to present his life story in a stirring sermon-style address, which drew cheers, whistles and even a “hallelujah.”