LAS VEGAS (TBEN) — Memories of the tumultuous 2016 Republican primary hung over the Las Vegas ballroom this weekend during the first major gathering of the party’s potential contenders for the 2024 nomination.
No fewer than 10 potential White House candidates took the stage to pitch their plans to improve the nation – and their party. The details varied, but most of the speeches carried an extraordinary sense of defiance rarely seen since former President Donald Trump took control of the Republican Party six years ago.
Their central message: Trump can and must be defeated.
Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations under Trump, vowed in April that she would not challenge the former president if he ran again. But on Saturday night, in front of hundreds of cheering Republicans, she vowed to give “1,000%” to a White House bid if she decided to enter.
“I’ve never lost an election and I’m not going to start now,” she said as the crowd roared.
But as the 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, like a growing number of concerned donors and Republican operatives, believes the GOP’s emboldened 2024 class may already be inadvertently creating the conditions that enabled Trump’s success in 2016. That year, a crowded Republican field splintered the primary voters and enabled Trump to become the party’s presidential nominee, despite winning only 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.
As then, Trump is viewed with suspicion within his party, his standing weakened significantly after several Loyalists lost winnable races in this month’s midterm elections. And above all, there is a parade of ambitious Republicans lined up to run against him.
A small but growing group of Republican operatives are 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, called on his party to embrace no more than two or three candidates — and to move urgently.
“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 started speaking out against Trump after the midterms. “If he becomes the Republican brand, the party will be destroyed.”
For now, Trump’s rivals appear to be heeding his warning.
The most popular alternative to Trump, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, is unlikely to enter the race until late spring, his allies say. But in his keynote speech Saturday night, he left little doubt that he was thinking about 2024.
“In times like these, there is no substitute for victory,” DeSantis said, referring over and over to his stunning interim success in Florida. “We have a lot more to do, and I’ve only just started fighting.”
And in a series of interviews, several other potential Republican candidates and their aides indicated that they would likely wait until the following spring or summer to enter the race if they decided to run. That’s even after Trump formally launched his 2024 campaign last week.
New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, who is not ruling out a run in 2024, said Trump’s early announcement has not created a sense of urgency; it simply emphasized his weakened political position.
“I think we all understand how little he’s going to play a role,” Sununu said in an interview. “He’s not scaring anyone away. Anyone who wants to run will run. It will be fun. It will be an open race.”
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan said it is far too early to worry about the field winnowing.
“I think more votes, more potential choices,” said Hogan, who is openly weighing a 2024 bid after his term ends in January. “Trump needs to be tested. People need to go out and be willing to stand up to him.”
Hogan continued: “I don’t think anyone will listen to the narrowing of the field. Everyone will say, ‘I should be the man, I should be the man, we should all be the man.’
Christie, a failed presidential candidate in 2016 who then led Trump’s transition to the White House that year, said he eventually expects seven or eight major candidates to enter the race, “which is manageable” compared to the 16 who entered the race in 2016. 2016 against Trump.
“A lot of those people are fishing out of the Trump pond,” Christie said, suggesting that prospects like DeSantis and Mike Pompeo are “MAGA guys” who would steal support from Trump’s base in a way that creates opportunity for others — like him. .
Christie dismissed any talk about winnowing the field so quickly.
“Should we all rally behind someone? OK, who? I don’t think there’s an obvious choice,” Christie said.
Trump advisers initially hoped he could clear the field with his early announcement. They now believe a crowded field will help him by splitting the anti-Trump vote — just as he did in 2016. Trump won the New Hampshire and South Carolina primary that year with just 35% and 32% of the vote, respectively. Seven others shared the vast majority of the vote.
Trump’s team notes that in the main 2022 primaries, from Arizona to New Hampshire to Pennsylvania, his loyalists won their GOP nominations with between 30% and 40% of the vote — a base of support that the team says is still growing. still his floor is in the 2024 primaries.
Former New Hampshire GOP chair Jennifer Horn, who led the state party in 2016, said the growing number of likely 2024 candidates “should know better” this time around.
“They’re nurturing exactly the kind of environment Trump needs to win,” Horn warned. “If the past is the prologue, we all have reason to worry.”
And while there were signs of Trump fatigue during the weekend conference, Trump received a warm welcome when he appeared via conference call on Saturday. The crowd cheered loudly when he noted his success in moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
But there was a remarkable silence as he repeated his baseless claims about his 2020 election loss.
“The elections were rigged. And it’s a shame it was, and Israel lost a lot,” Trump told the packed ballroom. “You better hope that some one person wins the election in 2024.”
And with Trump already a declared candidate, some operatives worry it’s much later than his challengers think.
The first presidential primary debate could take place in nine months, with the 2016 presidential primaries leading the way. By the summer of 2015, there were already 17 candidates in the race.
One of them was Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who is considering another run in 2024.
Speaking to reporters in Las Vegas, Cruz said Trump and his loyalists deserved some of the blame for the weaker-than-expected results in the interim. “I’m frustrated when my party puts up candidates with no realistic chance of success,” Cruz said.
But when asked about the 2024 presidential contest, Cruz said there were only several candidates who were “clearly positioned to run” against Trump. “I believe voters can and should figure that out.”
Pompeo, Trump’s former secretary of state, who is among those positioning himself to run, repeatedly slammed the former president on stage this weekend without directly mentioning his name. Instead, Pompeo said conservatives deserve leaders “who fight for them, not for ourselves or our own egos.”
And he acknowledged the approaching 2024 primaries.
“Who knows, next time we’re together, we could be on stage, multiple stages,” said Pompeo. “Who knows who else there are and what nicknames we will have?”
New York TBEN writer Jill Colvin contributed.