The Republican presidential primary is getting crowded, giving heartburn to GOP senators who want to turn the page on former President Trump.
Former Vice President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie plan to launch their campaigns next week, and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin now may jump in the race after saying last month he would pass.
The early struggles of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, long seen as Trump’s top rival for the GOP nod, have created the perception the race may be wide open and encouraged a range of candidates to take a shot at the nomination.
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (R), who’s not well known on the national political stage, says he too will soon formally launch his presidential campaign.
The new entries are a concern for senior Republicans in Washington who are highly skeptical of Trump’s ability to win in the 2024 general election but fear he will march to the presidential nomination easily if anti-Trump Republican primary voters are divided among too many other candidates.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy are already in the race with Trump and DeSantis.
“A replay of 2016? Yeah,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said of the concerns he shares with some of his Republican colleagues.
Their shared worry is that if Trump maintains his solid grip on his core supporters, estimated to comprise 30 percent to 40 percent of the GOP primary electorate, the ex-president will cruise to victory if the remaining share of voters is divided among too many other candidates.
GOP senators and strategists say this dynamic was at play when Trump won the nomination in 2016. None of the candidates who tried to establish themselves as the leading alternative to Trump could establish enough of a foothold against him during that cycle.
“A number of these people are in low single digits, so my hope would be that, if after a few months their numbers don’t get better, that they decide to drop out so that it becomes a two- or three-person race. I think that would be the best development, as far as I’m concerned,” Cornyn said.
Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) acknowledge what happened in 2016 could play out again in 2024.
“That’s always a possibility when you have one candidate that has a loyal following that starts with a bigger base,” he said.
Thune, who supports Scott, suggested rival candidates don’t think DeSantis has emerged as the clear alternative to Trump despite the early buzz around his candidacy after he won reelection in Florida.
“I think the fact that that many people are getting in suggests that they sense an opening. I think there’s a sense out there that people are looking for a new direction and a lot of these candidates are responding to it,” he said.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) is also contemplating a run for president, even though he has the support of only 1 percent of Republican primary voters nationwide, making him a long shot to win the presidency.
But he’s popular in his home state, which will host the second contest of the 2024 Republican primaries a week after the Iowa caucuses.
A poll of 500 likely New Hampshire primary voters conducted May 15-17 by National Research Inc. on behalf of American Greatness, a political action committee and advocacy group established by Trump’s former campaign manager, showed Trump with 39 percent support and DeSantis and Sununu virtually tied with 18 percent and 17 percent support, respectively.
A University of New Hampshire poll of 818 likely Republican primary voters in the Granite State in mid-April showed Trump with 42 percent support, DeSantis with 22 percent and Sununu with 12 percent.
While Sununu isn’t gaining much traction with primary voters nationwide, he would likely win a large share of the anti-Trump vote in the New Hampshire primary if he gets in the race.
The conventional wisdom among strategists is that any candidate who would defeat Trump in the primary needs to beat him in the early contests.
If Trump adds to his huge advantage over rival candidates in national polls by winning in Iowa and New Hampshire, he would pick up vital political momentum heading into the later states.
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) noted Trump won in 2016 largely because Republican primary voters who didn’t initially favor his candidacy couldn’t settle on one alternative candidate, dividing their votes among Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
“That’s happened before,” he said.
Rounds, who supports Scott, voiced sympathy for Cornyn’s view that presidential candidates who fail to gain significant traction with voters after a few months should get out of the way.
“He’s just stating the facts. That’s the way that it works,” he said.
Youngkin, if he gets into the race, could challenge DeSantis for supremacy on one of his best issues, promoting parental rights in education. Youngkin handily defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the 2021 Virginia governor’s race by seizing on the issue.
McAuliffe committed a major gaffe when he declared at a debate, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
The race put parental rights in education, something that has been a local concern, traditionally, in the national spotlight.
Republican strategists say it’s tough to keep ambitious candidates out of a race, especially when the early front-runners are perceived as vulnerable.
“I understand what Sen. Cornyn and others are saying, but I also think that around the country, you have a wide range of voices in the Republican Party that’s broader than the impact on the presidential nominating process,” said Vin Weber, a Republican strategist. “We’re in a long-term internal realignment of our Republican Party.
“I think it’s very, very important the public understands this is a broad-based party and not simply a MAGA party,” he said.
Weber said he’s “torn” about more candidates crowding the primary field but added, “I welcome them into the race.”
“I agree with the logic that if you don’t want Trump to be the nominee, you got to get it down to a two-person race, but it’s just not realistic to argue that to people at this stage of the process,” he said.
Weber argued there’s not much to be gained now from dissuading candidates from jumping into the presidential race.
But he added that “down the road, yes, quietly and behind the scenes, party leaders should look at the performance of these different candidates, and when it becomes clear that they are not able to win, we may want to cut the field down to as few as possible.”