Why Republicans Don’t Want Trump to Announce a 2024 Run Soon (or Ever)

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At this point, it’s a question of will he? or will he? as the 2024 field starts to take shape with ex-President Donald Trump atop the Republican heap.

The former leader has been quietly taking informal polls of his backers and donors, asking for their advice as he lays the groundwork for his political comeback. Sometimes by phone, often at his golf clubs in Florida and New Jersey, and even at a series of in-person, free-flowing dinners, the gab fests are as much about Trump sounding out ideas as soliciting praise for his talents. Trump even went so far as to tell New York magazine that he’s made a decision and the only question for him was when to announce.

“Well, in my own mind, I’ve already made that decision, so nothing factors in anymore. In my own mind, I’ve already made that decision,” Trump told the magazine. “I would say my big decision will be whether I go before or after,” he said, basing his B.C. and A.D. fulcrum on this November’s midterm elections.

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Hence the low groan of anxiety from the grill at the Capitol Hill Club, the cozy members-only haven for Republicans. If Trump is now in the race, that’s a huge suck on the finite political oxygen available to GOP candidates on the ballot this year—not to mention a hit on Republican fundraising given how Trump is likely to hoover up millions that House and Senate candidates need more immediately. A Trump entrance stands to feed his ego and starve the broader GOP.

Republicans, meanwhile, can rationalize that a Trump 2024 bid would at least distract the ex-President from his continued sulking over his 2020 loss. The sooner Trump starts on a new project and drops his failed last project, the better Republicans may fare this fall, when they stand poised to have a very good showing.

Trump, no doubt, starts the not-so-quiet march toward the 2024 starting gun as the man to beat. There is no one in the mainstream universe of candidates who has his level of name recognition, his access to unmatched donor rolls, and a sense of what animates the Republican Party that he remade in his likeness. Trump’s hold over the modern GOP is as remarkable as it is shocking, and many party insiders question if there is anyone who could deny him the nomination, including any of the prosecutors circling him and his businesses. Unlike other candidates, he doesn’t need a long runway to take off; he begins as an Elon-Musk-like creation ready to rocket straight up.

Still, though, Republicans are not in universal agreement about Trump’s place in the field. A number of public polls indicate that Trump is the favorite of roughly half of Republicans, suggesting that a consensus alternative could emerge. That could yield a repeat of 2016, when Trump dominated a fractured field that never quite settled on a Not-Trump contender until Ted Cruz made his last stand in Indiana, at which point it was too late.

Several of Trump’s likely rivals have started their own posturing ahead of 2024, telling donors and potential staff that they will not make their determinations based solely on Trump’s plans. Early-nominating states like New Hampshire and Nevada have already started seeing those would-be candidates show up at party dinners and picnics, courting activists who can make—or break—candidacies based on parochial whims.

But those candidates are taking care to stay inside the lines of campaign finance laws. Once a would-be contender says the magic words declaring themselves a candidate, a whole host of restrictions and requirements snap into place, including limits on fundraising and requirements for disclosures.

Trump, it seems, cannot be boxed in on those fronts. That has many Republicans less than pleased, because if Trump starts his own run right now, he becomes the story of the cycle. So far, many Republican strategists are telling their clients on ballots this year that they can keep 2024 discussions at arm’s length. Many have hemmed and hawed that without knowing who is running, their pick is irreverent. Once Trump is in the race, such pat answers will no longer be enough. The candidates will have to have a take on his candidacy, and a full embrace could be simultaneously required to keep the party’s base happy and disqualifying with moderate voters who, at least right now, are plenty sour on how Democrats in control of Washington have spent the last two years.

The Republican Party has shown time and again that it is either unable or unwilling to control Trump. The Republican National Committee never found a way to curb Trump’s impulses as candidate and it remains as loyal as ever to him. (He remains a fundraising juggernaut for the RNC. In turn, the RNC pays his legal bills and hocks his products, an unseemly relationship that has some party insiders less than comfortable.) In other words, if Trump decides to get in, he will.

The one argument that seems to be getting through to Trump, though, is one aimed squarely as his ego. If Republicans underperform in November, does Trump want to carry that responsibility? It’s not that he much cares how his party fares in broad terms. He is a desperate man who relishes being a kingmaker and personal winner. Anything that diminishes that—including some dodgy primary endorsements this cycle—threatens his self-image. And, in that, there may be enough uncertainty to keep him undeclared, at least until the votes are counted this year.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com