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In the next 48 hours, we will get a better sense of whether former President Donald Trump deserves his reputation as the candidate to beat in 2024 or if he’s merely part of the still-forming blob that is the Republican field of White House hopefuls.
First up, Friday’s secret-ballot election of the Republican National Committee chairman, which pits Trump’s favored incumbent, Ronna Romney McDaniel, against one of his attorneys, Harmeet Dhillon. Also in the mix is Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO and unapologetic conspiracy theorist who might end up playing a spoiler to save McDaniel by splitting the Fox News-addicted RNC members’ affinities.
The following day, Trump is heading to New Hampshire, where his 2016 presidential bid snagged its first win, to speak to the state Republican Party before jetting to South Carolina, a state that gave him a major boost amid a crowded field that shrunk in a matter of hours after votes were counted there in 2016. The Columbia, S.C., event is billed as his first major campaign stop of the 2024 effort, although his team is careful to downplay efforts to call it a rally, but more of an intimate event meant to show his leadership team coming together in a state that is already home to at least two of his potential rivals.
Put bluntly: Trump faces a trio of tests that he needs to ace. The 2022 midterms hinted that Trump’s aura of inevitability may have been overblown and could be highly vulnerable. In the weeks since—and in the wake of Trump’s seemingly indifferent entry as a full-blown candidate in November—it’s been a pundits’ game to gauge his real potential. But by the time the sun rises on Sunday, we may have a much clearer sense of whether the Trump 2024 bid is a machine to be feared, a fixer-upper that is a value buy, or a phantom bully deflating with its first pin prick.
Each is a viable theory. That alone would suggest one of the roughly two dozen Trump rivals for the nomination could carve out a lane to victory, although narrow as knots on Trump’s wingtips.
Trumps role in his party’s midterm debacle is why Trump’s favored pick for RNC chair is in doubt. Officially, Trump hasn’t endorsed McDaniel, a former Michigan GOP chief and the niece of Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah (née First Son of Michigan, Governor of Massachusetts, presidential candidate in 2008 and nominee in 2012). But Trump’s team hasn’t exactly been discreet in signaling a preference to give her a fourth term atop a committee that—at the risk of being impolite—doesn’t have a lot to show. Since McDaniel took the helm, Republicans have seen a net loss of three Senate seats, 19 House seats, and seven governorships. Oh, and the White House. That was a big one, which might render Trump’s preference a little less potent given she was at the helm when he became the first incumbent President to lose re-election since George H.W. Bush in 1992. McDaniel’s rise, coincidentally, coincided with Trump’s move to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
TIME’s Eric Cortellessa has a master-class dispatch on the RNC chair race. It’s a must-read piece that outlines the contours of the race, which has drawn an at-best-indifferent shrug from lawmakers who during past contested elections would be whipping the 168 RNC members. In an era of a super PAC, what power, exactly, does the party chair actually have? Or, perhaps more pressingly, what powers does its former President have?
That’s the legit question facing Trump’s traveling team, starting with a late-announced stop into brisk New Hampshire. Trump overpowered his better-organized rivals in the state in the early days of his 2016 bid for the nomination. It was there where Trump put the political world on notice that his efforts might be beyond ego. But he’s heading back to a state I called home earlier in my career, a place where Joe Biden prevailed over Trump by 7 points four years after Trump came up short by one-third of a point to Hillary Clinton. It’s a state that is changing after drawing pasture-seeking New Yorkers during the pandemic, as well as Massachusetts residents continuing to flow north. In that environment, GOP Gov. Chris Sununu has managed to find favor even among some of the state’s avowed Democrats.
Oh, that’s right. Sununu, who is skipping the NHGOP event on Saturday, is starting to lay the quiet groundwork for his own 2024 presidential run. It might be a doomed-from-the-start event, but a member of the New Hampshire version of the Kennedy clan isn’t one who should be ignored out of hand. After all, it’s tough to find a governor right now who has so much apparent fun leading a state.
Trump will spend the later part of Saturday in a state where at least two locals are also eyeing the nomination in 2024. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley served as Trump’s U.N. Ambassador; she is within weeks of deciding whether she’ll make a run. Haley has flashes of pluck that channel other former U.N. envoys, especially Jeanne Kirkpatrick or even Madeleine Albright with her daughter-of-immigrants’ narrative. Separately, Sen. Tim Scott could muster his own buzz, given he is the lone Black Republican lawmaker in the Senate.
That pair might freeze South Carolina’s alliances heading into 2024, which is a goal of its own if you’re someone like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who isn’t expected to make a public declaration until his state’s legislative session ends in late May. Trump is clearly worried that DeSantis is poised to emerge as the most credible challenger for the MAGA hat.
So, if you’re looking for a cheat sheet on this weekend:
- Trump’s claim to the crown is weak, but tough to knock off his noggin.
- The RNC fight will be a signal of what GOP insiders value in a leader.
- Travel to early-nominating states is a high-wire act. Even more so for an ex-President who won those delegations before.
- The GOP field is vast, and you’d be foolish to think it’s going to jell soon.
- Watch this space over the next 48 hours to gauge if Trump 2024 is a real force or merely a faux giant.
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