(The Hill) – Former President Trump is still the dominant figure in the Republican Party but his stranglehold is loosening.
Trump-backed candidates have had a mixed record in GOP primaries so far this cycle, with high-profile losses in Georgia, Nebraska and a key South Carolina district undercutting many other wins.
The work of the House Select Committee on Jan. 6 also places Trump’s role in the insurrection squarely in the spotlight.
To be sure, Trump leads early 2024 polls by a wide margin. But there is no guarantee that the ever-unpredictable Trump will enter the race. And there is a growing consensus among Republican insiders that, if he does so, he will face a serious challenge.
So, if the 2024 GOP nominee ends up being someone other than Trump, whom might it be?
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
DeSantis is Trump’s most serious rival at this early stage.
The Florida governor has a multilayered appeal. Conservatives loved his pushback against mask and vaccine mandates during the pandemic. He has embraced the culture wars with vigor, including his advocacy of legislation that liberal critics dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
The mere fact that DeSantis sparks such ire from left-leaning voters is almost certainly an asset in a GOP primary.
More concretely, DeSantis is a prodigious fundraiser. He surpassed $100 million in his reelection war-chest this spring.
Some figures close to Trump believe DeSantis could be scared off, and would be reluctant to enter a head-to-head race with the former president.
But plenty of others think he is the clearest example of the kind of candidate — populist but disciplined — who would have a real shot of beating Trump.
Former Vice President Mike Pence
Pence is in the spotlight, whether it’s welcome or otherwise, this week.
The Jan. 6 committee’s Thursday hearing was focused on Trump’s efforts to pressure Pence to help overturn the election. Pence famously resisted — putting his life in danger in the process.
Pence’s steadfastness on that issue, though praised by many beyond the GOP, could be a problem in a presidential primary. Pence’s main calling card in such a race would be his closeness to Trump while in office – but the most fervent Trump supporters won’t easily forget what they see as a betrayal on Jan. 6.
“There are Never Pencers out there for sure, and that will be a challenge,” said GOP strategist Brad Blakeman, “but I don’t think it is insurmountable.”
Others are not so sure Pence can get over the hurdle.
“Pence is a spent bullet,” said one conservative leader supportive of Trump. “He was a great vice president but he has no grassroots support. He is the choice of the donor class.”
Pence has distanced himself further from Trump in recent months, stating plainly that Trump was “wrong” to think he could overturn the election and campaigning for incumbent Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), whom Trump was desperate to oust.
He is a canny politician and has deep roots in the religious right. It’s just not clear how far those assets would take him in a crowded field.
Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley
No one in Republican politics doubts that Haley, who was twice elected as South Carolina’s governor before becoming U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Trump administration, has her mind set on higher office.
Haley has long been seen as a rising star. She was the first female governor of the Palmetto State. The daughter of Indian immigrants, she was also viewed as an exemplar of how the GOP could reach beyond its white base.
“She is just an attractive political figure,” said Matt Mackowiak, the chair of the Travis County Republican Party in Texas. “She is conservative, but she does that in a way that is persuasive. Pence has a line about being a conservative but not being in a bad mood about it, and Haley has that quality as well.”
Haley is distrusted in parts of TrumpWorld, however, and her political judgment has proven questionable at times.
In the immediate wake of the insurrection, she was very critical of Trump in an interview with Politico, saying “he went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him…and we can’t let that ever happen again.”
She later backed off amid a backlash. By April 2021, she was saying she would not run in 2024 if Trump does so.
Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas)
Cruz ended up in second place to Trump in the 2016 nominating process.
Could he benefit from the GOP’s tendency to nominate a figure who is seen as next in line? Maybe.
Cruz is a down-the-line conservative and his pugnacious political persona enthuses his supporters.
But he also has a habit of rubbing people the wrong way. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) joked years ago that “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you.” (Graham later apologized.)
Cruz’s speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention, in which he conspicuously failed to endorse Trump, still sticks in the throats of many of the former president’s supporters.
Still, Cruz knows what it takes to build a presidential campaign, he’s had a national profile for years and he’s a fierce competitor.
One added complication: He is up for reelection to the Senate in 2024.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
Pompeo’s presidential ambitions seem crystal clear.
Within a couple of months of President Biden assuming office, Pompeo was visiting Iowa and helping fundraise for a Republican in New Hampshire, traditionally the two first-to-vote states in the primary process.
Pompeo’s time as Secretary of State and, prior to that, as CIA director, gives him plenty of experience to highlight if the political conversation turns to foreign affairs or national security.
To skeptics, Pompeo lacks charisma. They also note he has never run for statewide elected office. Prior to his appointment as CIA director in 2017, he had served three terms in the House representing a Kansas district.
Still, “he is in many ways the rightful heir to the Trump legacy; he was responsible for most, if not all, of his foreign policy agenda; and he understands Trump and Trump voters,” said Mackowiak. “I would not underestimate Mike Pompeo.”
Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.)
If Republicans want a nominee who can unite the pro-Trump and Trump-skeptical wings of their party, and perhaps broaden its appeal among the electorate at large, Scott could be a real contender.
Conservatives like Scott’s record and up-from-his-bootstraps personal story, even political opponents often like him personally, and he is the sole Black Republican senator.
Scott worked with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) on proposals for policing reform for months in 2021, though the effort did not ultimately succeed.
“Tim Scott is potentially the best unifier candidate Republicans could have,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director of the Republican National Committee. “He is the antithesis of polarization.”
It’s hard to find people with bad things to say about Scott. The doubt most often voiced about a potential presidential candidacy is whether he really wants it enough.
Some who know him feel he’d be as happy returning to private life as he would be walking the West Wing.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem
Noem took office in Jan. 2019 but only really came to national attention when she railed against COVID-related lockdowns, insisting that “more freedom, not more government is the answer.”
She famously supported the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally going ahead in her state in the summer of 2020. The event drew massive crowds but was linked to COVID outbreaks far beyond South Dakota.
If Noem decided to seek the White House, she would be one of the most ostentatiously Trumpian candidates in the field.
The former president appears to be something of a fan, having held out the hope that Noem might challenge incumbent Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). She declined, and Thune easily won the GOP primary earlier this month.
Noem would plainly be a risk, especially given her relatively scant experience on the national stage. And South Dakota, far from the epicenters of media and money, is not the easiest state from which to launch a presidential campaign.
But even some more moderate Republicans caution against underestimating Noem’s star power and appeal to the party’s grassroots.