Republicans Want to Run for President Without Having to Confront Trump
Candidates risk falling into a trap if they engage, obscurity if they don’t.
Good afternoon and welcome to Press Pass, your twice-weekly look into the halls of Congress, the campaign trail, and the way Washington works. Today we’ll start with the 2024 race for the Republican presidential nomination, which finally includes more than one candidate.
Before we dive in, I wanted to point out that gifting a Bulwark+ membership is the perfect romantic gesture if you’re just now realizing that today is Valentine’s Day.
Press Pass takes you inside the halls of Congress and on the campaign trail every Tuesday and Thursday.
There are only two Republican presidential candidates at the moment: Donald Trump and Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who announced her run today. But several others are expected to jump in very soon, at least based on the signals they’re sending. These include:
Ron DeSantis is giving the appearance of sitting tight as Florida governor, but his network is busy strategizing for a presidential run behind the scenes.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott is gearing up for what the Wall Street Journal described as a “unity and optimism” campaign.
Mike Pompeo, whose resume includes secretary of state and CIA director, has been teasing a run for months, including releasing a book (recently reviewed in The Bulwark here).
Former Vice President Mike Pence is currently mulling a challenge to his former boss, even as he fights back a subpoena from special counsel Jack Smith.
John Bolton and Chris Christie, each of whom worked closely with Trump, broke with him, and wrote a book about it, are understood to be interested in getting into the race. And GOP governors Larry Hogan and Chris Sununu have done nothing to discourage talk about themselves running.
All of these candidates are doing their own thing—and all are studiously trying to avoid uttering the T-word. Essentially, they want to beat the 2024 Republican nomination game without having the big boss fight at the end.
Look no further than the most high-profile potential challenger. When Trump posted photos to Truth Social suggesting DeSantis had a history of “grooming high school girls with alcohol,” DeSantis responded by not responding, instead saying, “I spend my time delivering results for the people of Florida and fighting against Joe Biden.”
But that kind of non-response, calculated to avoid irking the Trump-loving GOP base, can only work for so long. And it will fully lose its power by the time actual primary voting begins—less than a year from now—and there’s a tangible measurement of how well a candidate is actually doing.
Some prospective candidates have lobbed a few grenades in Trump’s direction, but they’ve been duds so far: only vague allusions to what he did wrong, like lose elections and sink Republicans down-ballot. No candidates have taken direct shots at Trump or criticized him for his contributions to those electoral failures: his temperament, his embrace of vile conspiracy theories, his disregard for the rule of law, his lack of respect for the office of the presidency (not to mention his support for certain unpopular policies that they also like).
After three straight underwhelming elections, Trump’s ascent in 2016 looks like more of an anomaly than a populist paradigm shift. That is evinced not only by his loss in 2020, but also by the fact that in the places where he has played an outsized role and strongly supported his preferred candidates, large shares of Republicans have instead turned out for Democrats.
It’s hard to run for president and not be forced into a position where everything you do is a response to the frontrunner, especially one who commands so much loyalty from the party base that nearly one-third could follow him on an independent spoiler campaign.
I spoke to a couple Republicans who ran in past races for their take on how to actually stand out and push back against an all-powerful frontrunner. They didn’t make it sound fun.
Marco Rubio: “It’s a tough process. It’s a marathon. It’s an unusual election cycle. You'll be taking on a—on the Republican side—a former president who’s sort of de facto nominee, a previous nominee, obviously served as president for four years. So it’s kind of an unprecedented race [that is] very different from any other race that’s been run in my lifetime.”
Mitt Romney: “If they follow precisely what I did, they could lose as well. I think if you’re running for president, you have to have a vision of what you want to accomplish and take that to the American people. And sure, you’re going to have to duck and weave if someone takes a swing at you, but basically you’re out describing why you want to be president and what you would do if you were.”
Rand Paul: “I think a good competitive primary will be good for the country. I think you have to believe in something and have a unique vision for the country and then you go out and present your message . . . but I’m now all for if people want to run, then you should go for it.”
A member of Congress dumped a ton of stocks overnight
Freshman Democrat Shri Thanedar of Michigan disclosed last week that in January he sold close to $1.1 million in stocks across a handful of companies. Thanedar’s portfolio included investments in big corporations like Tesla, Starbucks, and Walmart, as well as private equity firms Blackstone, KKR, and the Carlyle Group.
The transaction disclosure is particularly interesting not only because of the sheer volume, but also because it was all sales, no purchases. Whether this was simply a sudden need for cash or part of a broader effort to eliminate potential conflicts of interest now that he is serving in Congress is unclear.
I reached out to Thanedar’s office to find out why he unloaded so much of his portfolio during his first month in office. They did not offer an explanation for stock sales.
Sununu and Hogan lost me when they said they would vote for Trump if he was the nominee. So far, there's not one GOP for whom I would vote.
TFG has one big advantage over any other "main-stream challenger: He does not care if he burns it all down. He will just found a new "party" as his personal cash cow with one or two "loyal" donors. Given that perspective, he can say and do whatever he wants, knowing that he will draw 25-30% of the potential "R" voting base. Alone, that would not be enough to win, but enough to deny any "R" candidate the Oval Office, thus ending that person's political aspirations for the foreseeable future.
Perhaps that will convince what remains of the GOP that it was not wise to clutch an asp (I won't use the correct last letter for decorum reasons) to your breast, believing it to be a wonder-weapon.