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Just six months after the last presidential election, ambitious Republicans are already busy laying the groundwork for the next one, visiting key states and hitting the fundraising circuit.
It could all be for nothing if former President Donald Trump decides to run again.
Without him in the picture, Republicans expect a free-for-all 2024 primary race that will draw candidates from across the country, ranging from senators to governors to former Trump administration officials.
But Trump, who has maintained a firm grip on the GOP base since leaving office, could ruin other Republican presidential aspirants’ carefully laid plans in an instant, likely leaving them with a much narrower path forward if he chooses to launch another White House campaign.
“You have to assume he’s not going to run again. And if he does, you reassess at that time,” said Alex Conant, a GOP consultant who worked on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “Lay the groundwork now, but if he does run, your plans will likely be delayed for four years.”
It’s a unique scenario for the GOP. Defeated presidents and party nominees usually fade into the background after an election, clearing the way for the next wave of leaders. But Trump has stayed in the mix, setting up his own political operation and saying that he will decide whether to run for president again after the 2022 midterm elections.
In an interview with the conservative media outlet Daily Wire on Tuesday, Trump said his supporters would be “very, very happy” when he eventually makes his announcement.
In the meantime, his fellow Republican hopefuls are moving ahead. Party operatives and officials in the three states that kick off the nomination process — Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — say they are seeing an early uptick in visits from national Republican figures who don’t want to be caught flat-footed if Trump decides against running.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who delivered the official GOP response to President Joe Biden’s congressional address last week, have all visited Iowa this year. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton are both scheduled to travel to the first caucus state in June.
Cotton and Pompeo have also recently spoken to virtual gatherings of Republicans in New Hampshire. And former Vice President Mike Pence, after delivering a speech last week in South Carolina, announced plans to travel to New Hampshire next month.
“I think you have to just proceed as you would normally in an open field of Republicans and not let Donald Trump’s presence or decision really impact what you’re doing,” said Craig Robinson, a former political director for the Iowa Republican Party. “There’s no downside to doing it now. This is like a free window to dip your toes in the water a little bit and see what’s out there.”
Operatives in the three early voting states said GOP activists are also keeping their eye on other potential contenders who have yet to visit. That includes Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who have earned plaudits from conservatives due to their handling of the coronavirus pandemic in their states and frequent appearances on Fox News.
Jim Merrill, a veteran New Hampshire-based GOP operative, said Trump would be the “runaway favorite” to win the 2024 nomination, otherwise there is an opening for contenders across the party’s ideological spectrum.
“I don’t think there’s any heir apparent,” Merrill said.
TAPPING TRUMP’S DONORS
Republicans with national aspirations are also seeking to make inroads with the types of donors that could fund a future campaign.
At least eight potential GOP presidential candidates are scheduled to travel to Texas this weekend for a fundraising event aimed at helping the party gain control of the U.S. House in 2022. Several of those contenders also appeared at the Republican National Committee’s spring donor retreat last month in Florida.
Some high-profile Republicans have already shown an ability to appeal to Trump’s financial base. More than half of the donors who gave at least $200 to Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley and Cotton in the first fundraising quarter of the year also contributed to Trump’s presidential campaigns, according to a McClatchy analysis.
Roughly one-third of donors who contributed at least $200 to Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Tim Scott and Rubio during that period had also previously given to Trump.
But party operatives said that any Republican would have trouble winning over voters and donors for a presidential effort if Trump ran in 2024. A survey conducted earlier this year by Tony Fabrizio, who was Trump’s lead pollster during the 2020 campaign, found that 51% of Republican voters nationally would support the former president in the primary. No other GOP politician received more than single-digit support.
Some would-be White House contenders appear to acknowledge the current sentiment of many GOP voters. For instance, even as Haley begins to tour early voting states, she said last month that she would not run for president if Trump does.
“Everybody is keeping their options open, but I don’t think anybody is fully committing. I don’t think they want to run afoul of Trump,” Fabrizio said. “As long as he is sucking up a lot of money, it’s going to be tough sledding for them.”
Even if they choose not to run in 2024, Republican operatives said the relationships presidential hopefuls — particularly the younger ones — are building now with voters, activists and donors could still be useful in a national campaign further down the road.
“It’s early, but the battle lines are drawn across whether Trump runs or not,” said former South Carolina Republican Party chair Matt Moore. “I don’t see any sort of A-level candidate running against Trump.”
Ben Wieder contributed reporting.