Top GOP strategist: If Trump doesn't run, it won't surprise me if there are 20 legit candidates in the 2024 field

AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

This caught my eye, partly on account of who said and partly because it took me aback. Could we really have a field of 20 candidates in a post-Trump GOP primary?

Right, granted, we had 16 in the 2016 field. But the GOP in 2016 was a party without a firm identity, opening the door to figures as diverse as Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich. In 2024, that won’t be true. The party’s identity will be Trump, or Trumpism.

But I suppose “Trumpism” needs some post-Trump intellectual content too and a wide-open primary will have various flavors on the menu. Do you like your Trumpism more conservative-flavored, a la Cruz? With an emphasis on the working class, per Marco Rubio? How about with a hawkish foreign policy attached, as Tom Cotton would suggest?

The 2024 primary could be, say, 17 variations on populist-nationalism with a few no-shot centrist candidacies tossed in.

Jeff Roe managed Cruz’s presidential campaign in 2016 and likely would have steered him to the nomination if you-know-who hadn’t run. Last year he managed Glenn Youngkin’s gubernatorial campaign to the most shocking Republican victory since Trump’s win five years earlier. Roe knows what he’s doing. So when he says a Trump-less 2024 primary will be Republican Thunderdome, it’s worth heeding him.

“If he doesn’t run, everybody is running. I mean everybody,” said Jeff Roe, who managed Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign and GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s 2021 campaign in Virginia. “It would not surprise me to have 20 legitimate candidates.”

Alex Conant, a founding partner at the public affairs firm Firehouse Strategies, predicted even more Republicans would run for president than when he was communications director for Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign in 2016. At the time, 17 major candidates vied for the title of GOP nominee.

“You are going to see a very very crowded field and also the most open race that we have seen in a long time on the GOP side,” Conant said of a Trumpless 2024. “You’ll see people at all levels of government and from the private sector throwing their hat in the ring.”

Thought experiment: Can we name 20 Republicans who might plausibly run in 2024?

Let’s start with senators. I count four sure-shots there: Cruz, Cotton, Rubio, and Josh Hawley.

Governors? Ron DeSantis, of course, and Greg Abbott. Probably Kristi Noem too.

Trump alumni? There are the two Mikes, Pence and Pompeo, and Nikki Haley, no doubt. Chris Christie sure sounds eager for a second campaign as well.

Anti-Trumpers? Larry Hogan will run. And Liz Cheney, if she’s ousted from Congress, might jump in just to keep the rest of the field honest about January 6 and Trump’s influence over the party.

That’s 13. Can we find another seven?

How about Roe’s guy, Glenn Youngkin? He’s limited to one term as governor of Virginia, which means he’ll be old news by 2028. If he wants to run for president, it’s 2024 or bust.

There could be more from the Senate than we expect. The two Scotts, Rick and Tim, might be thinking of trying it. Rick Scott has a ton of money and has been wildly successful in elections thus far. Tim Scott would be the only African-American in the field while also boasting some of the strongest conservative credentials of any candidate.

Among governors and former governors, Chris Sununu and Doug Ducey each have successful records and occupy a lane somewhere to Hogan’s right as executives who have distanced themselves from Trump without quite turning anti-Trump.

And then there are the MAGA wild cards, the conservative infotainment personalities who could get in and scramble the race by attracting an ardent populist following. Take your pick: Donald Trump Jr, Tucker Carlson, Mike Flynn, even Marjorie Taylor Greene.

That’s 20. Actually, 22. Roe may have lowballed it!

Terry Sullilvan, Marco Rubio’s former campaign manager, is quoted in the same article as Roe alleging that Trump will delay announcing his candidacy as long as possible to freeze the field and build public suspense. “He will wait until the last minute of the last day of the last second. You guys are going to be waiting on the tarmac for the plane to take off to New Hampshire,” he told Business Insider. Which would be true, I think, if Trump were running on his own schedule. But he isn’t. He’s running on the schedule prosecutors are creating for him. There was news about that this afternoon, in fact:

The more legal trouble he’s in, the sooner he’ll announce his candidacy so that he can claim that any criminal charges are a political “hoax” aimed at thwarting his reelection bid. A few days ago his accounting firm, Mazars, cut ties with him amid the New York AG’s investigation into the Trump Organization’s finances, declaring that it couldn’t stand by the annual financial statements it had prepared for him in the past. The firm concluded that those statements “were no longer reliable based in part on the attorney general’s earlier filings, its own investigations and information the accountants received from ‘internal and external sources,'” per the Times. Trump’s inner circle is reportedly freaked out by the development. One would think that now would be a time for him to put politics aside and focus on the legal battle to come, but Trump’s strategy always and everywhere when he’s in trouble is to cry “hoax,” “unfair,” and claim he’s the target of an illicit vendetta. Formally declaring his presidential candidacy soon would make that easier for him to do with respect to prosecution.

So Roe’s speculation of a 2024 free-for-all is likely all for naught. Trump will announce this year and interest among the rest of the potential field will wither away. But even if he ended up not running, let’s be real: Is there any plausible scenario in which DeSantis doesn’t win relatively easily? Anything can happen over the next two years and having 20 opponents sniping at him at debates would make for some rough moments, but DeSantis is all but certain to inherit most of the MAGA base and that’s enough to win a primary. Especially with the rest of the field divided 19 ways.

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