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If you spend any time looking at the polls right now, there are essentially two obvious contenders for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination: ex-President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. In almost every survey, that pair of smash-it-all-to-hell firebrands controls about three-quarters of the early support; all others are polling, at best, in the mid-single digits, while some of the most compelling cases for the future of the GOP are statistically equal to about zero.
This would all suggest no one else should bother getting in the race. Instead the opposite is happening.
Sen. Tim Scott on Monday jumped in with a rally in North Charleston, S.C. The likes of former Vice President Mike Pence, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum have been laying the groundwork—with varying degrees of intentionality—for a run. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who had said he was not running at the moment, didn’t stop his super PAC from releasing a campaign-style ad that was as good as any launch video seen in some time. And don’t discount former Trump frenemies like Trump’s longest-serving National Security Adviser John Bolton or ex-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Even former Energy Secretary Rick Perry isn’t ruling out a third run of his own.
Is the Trump-induced fever inside the GOP finally breaking? Or is it causing dangerous hallucinations?
All these seasoned Republicans and a cadre of typically smart operatives are working to undermine the leader of their party because of two distinct, but related assumptions: 1.) Trump exhaustion is widespread, but untapped; and 2.) Republicans can’t win the White House or the Senate with Trump on the ballot. If the first inflection point of the campaign cycle was Trump’s indictment, those two assumptions are fueling a second one, which begins this week as a rush of credible conservatives with reform-facing pitches and central-casting-worthy stories potentially jump into the fray.
On the first assumption, it’s helpful to remember that Trump was an annoying force in politics long before became an official candidate in 2015. He was the biggest hype man of the Birther movement, who trolled Obama relentlessly over his place of birth. (Hawaii, for the record.) In other words, the Trump Show has been going on for quite some time and it’s numbers are soft. The thinking so many Republicans are banking on is that Trump is an entirely over-inflated dirigible that is one errant spark from going up in spectacular flames.
That flies somewhat in the face of the C.W. that Trump permanently remade many aspects of the current Republican Party; his hold is tight, his vengeance mighty. DeSantis is shaping himself as a less-indicted version of Trump but marching with the same mix of moxy and machismo right up to the front gate of the Magic Kingdom with a mousetrap. (TIME’s Molly Ball has a masterful, must-read profile of DeSantis’ work in Florida and what it could mean for America.) Tech investor Vivek Ramaswamy, meanwhile, is running as a less-baggage-laden Trump, although he channels plenty of the culture warrior trolling that makes Trump as amusing as any YouTube star. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley is also running, but seems to be slow-walking any escalating criticism of her former boss.
Yet there is a whole cadre of non-Trumps in the wings or on-deck. They are careful not to be, as a whole, anti-Trumps, but it’s clear that they’re onto at least a hunch that Trumpism could lose its luster over the next year, which is truly a lifetime in politics.
Trump captured the nomination in 2016 because everyone seemed skittish to engage him directly with any real purpose, and even then it seemed to fall on one person at a time to doff the role of Trump Foe—and then to be felled by his unmatched cruelty. (Remember Little Marco? Low-Energy Jeb? Lyin’ Ted?)
This time, the thinking goes, the slow grind of low-grade friction against Trump could whittle down his strength in a way no broadside could in 2016. It’s an approach that’s about to be tested.
Take Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate and the first Black Senator elected to the Senate from the South since Reconstruction. Scott’s campaign is ready with $22 million in the bank, $6 million in television ads teed up in Iowa and New Hampshire, and billionaire Larry Ellison at the ready with his checkbook to give a broadside to Trump’s aura of inevitability.
Talk to any sober Republican on the Hill—and even some Democrats—and they light up at the mention of Scott’s candidacy. Yes, they know the challenges, but they also know the potential: a capable fundraiser, a compelling argument for his candidacy, and a decided break from policy-devoid Trumpism. Scott has proven able to work across the aisle, is a partisan but not vindictive about it, and his base frankly breaks the mold of what a lot of the modern GOP looks like with a blend of traditional evangelicals, moderate Republicans and conservative activists. The No. 2 Republican in the Senate, John Thune, was by Scott’s side Monday and endorsed him at the rally. Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota, too, is openly backing Scott.
It’s not just Scott who is drawing folks off the sidelines. Veteran strategist Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential bid and for years was the political sherpa for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is helping organize a super PAC on behalf of Pence’s nascent campaign. Many of the Koch political orbit’s most serious players are more directly involved in Pence’s efforts. And former Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a close ally of Pence from their days in the House, is helping raise money for the effort that will focus on dinging Trump in the early nominating states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. Bobby Saparow, who ran Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s campaign last year, is expected to run the day-to-day operations of the group.
Which brings us to that second assumption, the one animating much of the actions among the Republicans most focused on winning control of the Senate. Finding an offramp from Trumpism is about more than just whether voters will back their candidates next November. Some prime recruits, frankly, don’t want to run if there’s a chance they’ll have to spend almost a year on the trail defending Trump at every turn.
That’s why Senate Leader Mitch McConnell and his allies are taking a more direct approach to the campaign. They watched through gritted teeth last year as a favorable map for them left Democrats in control, in large part because the party activists nominated candidates who stood tough odds of winning over voters in the middle. With Sen. Steve Daines at the helm of the party’s official campaign arm and McConnell’s pals on the outside emboldened, that seems less likely this time—even if that means running primaries against Trump-endorsed candidates. Electability over all other factors is key. As an added and implicit bonus, a lackluster endorsement trail may lead some GOP insiders to rethink Trump’s primacy.
Biden and his fellow Democrats have very real fissures with some parts of their coalition and Scott could peel some voters of color away from their default partisan identifications. That is compelling for some abacus-wielding Republicans who are frustrated with the fact the GOP has lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. If politics truly is a game of addition, Team GOP needs to start finding new supporters and hemorrhaging their deserters.
Finally, for political insiders, Trump has been around seemingly forever, and the joke is wearing thin.
Trump can still put on the show he’s become known for, or at least some version of it. Just look at his recent CNN town hall with likely GOP voters that proved he has no intention of modulating his belligerence. He drew spiteful laughter when he joked about a civil case he had just lost, applause when he challenged the moderator, and nods when he spread lies about 2016’s loss. “It’s [out of] amusement. It’s not bemusement. And it sure isn’t support,” one unaligned Republican strategist up there told me.
Still, there’s a big gap to cover between chuckling at performance art and convincing those thrill-seekers it’s worth trading in the circus tent folding chair for a pew inside a stable church. Scott and his cohort think they can pull it off over the next nine months or so, and they may be right. The margins are small, the stakes huge, the pitch steep. Yet a surprising number of typically smart operatives see an objective way to deny if not derail Trump’s route, and these aren’t the types to fall for a shallow scheme. In the meantime, they’re walking into a lot of rooms with plenty of skepticism and more than a little hesitancy toward conversion. It’s now up to them to prove the doubters wrong and the heretics right.
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