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The question of what happens to the Republican Party after the Trump presidency is not one that will be resolved by think tanks, symposiums or tidy theories.
Rather, it will be hashed out by the men and women who vie with each other to lead the party in the next presidential election. It will be a complicated dance in which they struggle with the power of a disfigured media environment that creates terrible incentives, and reckon with how they navigated the Trump years. Meanwhile, Trump’s closer-than-expected loss may give him a larger role in shaping his party going forward than future presidents tend to get, especially if he can convince Republican voters that he won the election — which he did not — and that the presidency was stolen from him, which it wasn’t.
But it’s an oversimplification to say voters will also play a role. Only a small number will. The most devoted and intense Republican partisans who vote reliably in primary elections will be the tail that wags the dog.
Ideas, of course, will have a role, but they will collide with the messy realities of how individual politicians believe they can use those ideas to separate themselves from the others, while drawing as much support from the different voting blocs within the Republican Party.
The biggest new idea, of course, will be the economic populism that has provided Trump with much of his lifeblood, peeling off former Democrats from industrial states where automation and globalization have decimated jobs and communities. White conservative evangelicals will remain a powerful constituency, as will pro-business suburban voters.
Trump will still be a presence, though it’s hard to know how much and in what way. Does he want to run for president again in 2024, at age 78? Joe Biden did it at 77 and won, and there’s nothing in the Constitution that would prevent Trump from running for two nonconsecutive terms. So maybe.
“I would absolutely put him on the shortlist of people who are likely to run in 2024. He doesn’t like losing,” said Mick Mulvaney, the former White House chief of staff to Trump.
Does his son Don Jr. want to pick up his mantle? Or his daughter Ivanka? If Trump wants to stay relevant but isn’t interested in being president again, then he might need to keep another run on the table to do so. How does that constrain and influence the other 2024 hopefuls?
There will be many, many hopefuls. The list of ambitious Republicans — many of them in their 40s and 50s — waiting in the wings is quite long. There is a whole list of U.S. senators: Tim Scott of South Carolina, Marco Rubio of Florida, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Rick Scott of Florida, Todd Young of Indiana, Ted Cruz of Texas, and Rob Portman of Ohio, among others.
Three of those senators — Cruz, Rubio and Paul — have already run for president once, in 2016.
There are some other obvious names: Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.
And some governors who could run: South Dakota’s Kristi Noem, Florida’s Ron DeSantis, Arizona’s Doug Ducey, Maryland’s Larry Hogan, Massachusetts’s Charlie Baker, Texas’s Greg Abbott and a few others.
Those are just the ones considered to be legitimate contenders now. Here’s a look at some of the most intriguing.
Nikki Haley, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations
She’s the former two-term governor of South Carolina. She’s a 48-year-old child of Indian American immigrants. She served two years under Trump as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and left the job on good terms with the president.
Biography only goes so far, but Haley’s checks a lot of boxes and is the product of much more than just fate. It speaks to her considerable political instincts and talents.
Perhaps more than any other Republican politician, Haley managed to establish a certain independence from Trump while also maintaining a positive relationship with him. Her skills indicate that she might be one of a few with the best shot of fusing the rising economic populism inside the Republican Party with its traditional supply-side, anti-tax agenda.
“I think the right answers end up being a mix of some of the populist edges with a traditional supply-side orientation,” one influential Republican policy adviser told Yahoo News. The challenge, he said, will be “trying to figure out how to meld the two, taking elements of both.”
“You might discard some of the elements [associated] too closely with Trump, like tariffs,” he said. “And you might take some of the need to look more seriously at those displaced by trade.”
Haley, along with Rubio of Florida and Scott of South Carolina, “represent in some ways a Republican Party that wants to shed this notion that it is a predominantly white working-class party.” Rubio is Cuban American and Scott is African American.
Haley was governor of South Carolina when a white supremacist shot and killed nine Black parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. In the aftermath of that, she flipped her position on the Confederate flag flying above the state Capitol, backing its removal and signing a bill to do just that.
She initially supported Rubio in the 2016 Republican primary, and then Cruz of Texas, and said she was “not a fan” of Trump when he became the nominee but said she’d vote for him. Weeks after Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, he chose Haley as ambassador to the U.N.
In late 2017, she made waves by saying women who alleged sexual misconduct by Trump “should be heard.” But she kept up a good relationship with Trump for the most part and did not become an outspoken critic after her exit from the job at the end of 2018. She spoke at the 2020 Republican convention in support of Trump and appeared at least once on the campaign trail for the president’s reelection.
Ted Cruz, U.S. senator from Texas
The 49-year-old Texas Republican was the last man standing against Trump in the 2016 primary, and he will have a head start in the 2024 cycle for that reason alone. Like Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, having run once before makes Cruz an automatic contender, at least in the early running.
One question for Cruz, however, is how Republican voters will view his extreme flip-flops regarding Trump. In 2016, he called Trump a “pathological liar,” “utterly amoral,” “a narcissist at a level I don’t think this country’s ever seen” and “a serial philanderer.” Trump mocked Cruz’s wife for her looks and bizarrely suggested Cruz’s father was involved in a conspiracy to kill President John F. Kennedy.
One of the most memorable moments of the 2016 Republican convention, in fact, was when Cruz, a Harvard-trained lawyer, declined to endorse Trump in his speech and urged the convention delegates to “vote your conscience,” drawing a cascade of boos and jeers from the audience.
But once Trump was elected, Cruz became a loyal supporter, like many of the other rivals Trump vanquished. And Cruz played a key role in helping Trump fight off the impeachment trial in the Senate in January. He argued that Trump’s legal team should argue that pressure on Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden’s business dealings was justified, and said Republicans should call Hunter Biden to testify in the Senate trial.
That made it all the more interesting when Cruz — a week before the election — dismissed Trump’s attempts to use the New York Post story about Hunter Biden’s laptop against Joe Biden. “I don’t think it moves a single voter,” Cruz said.
But a few days later, Cruz, an astute politician who knows how powerful the issue of censorship is to many conservatives, also blasted Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in a Senate hearing for the social media platform’s decision to suppress the New York Post story, a move Twitter later reversed.
And then after the election, Cruz amplified Trump’s false claims of a rigged election, unloading a cascade of mistruths and outright lies in the days before the race was decided.
Josh Hawley, U.S. senator from Missouri
Hawley, 40, has been in the Senate for only two years. But he’s quickly become a fresh new face of conservatism, and of white evangelicals in particular. He spoke recently to a gathering of Pentecostal fundamentalists on the National Mall, and his agility in speaking the language of conservative Christianity was clear.
Hawley has made fighting Big Tech a centerpiece of his political identity. He has been a leading voice advocating for stripping social media platforms of protections from lawsuits under Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, although opponents argue that doing so might actually increase censorship of the platforms, or that Hawley’s proposed legislation might not change much. For the moment, at least, it’s enough that Hawley is seen as fighting Big Tech to make him into a champion of those on the right who are worried about censorship and the concentration of economic power in liberal-leaning Silicon Valley.
Hawley’s other noteworthy innovation is a move away from unfettered capitalism to a more robust role for the government in protecting social welfare. Hawley clearly believes that the populist elements of Trump’s support are here to stay, and he has planted his flag there.
But Hawley holds himself out as a devout Christian, and like Cruz, he too spread and repeated the same lies in the days after the election about observers being blocked from watching the vote counting, in contrast to another conservative Christian who also has potential 2024 aspirations, Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who was honest about the lack of evidence for Trump’s claims.
Marco Rubio, U.S. senator from Florida
Rubio, 49, was the rising star several years ago, much like Hawley now. Hours after Mitt Romney had lost the 2012 election, the political universe began talking about Rubio as the heir apparent to lead the GOP out of the political wilderness.
Things didn’t quite work out that way. Rubio put his full weight behind a 2013 immigration reform effort, and then abandoned it once it was clear it wouldn’t pass. He ran for president in 2016 as an establishment-minded, conventional Republican, and ended his campaign exchanging petty personal insults with Trump before he flamed out with a loss in his home state of Florida.
In yet another reversal, Rubio decided to go back to the Senate rather than retiring, which he had insisted he would do if he lost the presidential nomination. And since then, Rubio has kept a rather low profile in the Senate. He has been perhaps the most aggressive of any Republican with national aspirations in seeking to chart a new course that incorporates populist policy solutions into the Republican DNA.
Rubio has embraced more aggressive oversight of financial institutions, as well as a bigger expansion of the child tax credit and the earned income credit. He has backed trade protectionism, and even signed a pro-union letter drafted by American Compass, a new think tank formed in May to promote this new brand of conservatism that some call “common-good capitalism.” Critics have said he is attacking capitalism, and some label his approach “socialism lite.”
Rubio has done a lot of hard work to ground himself in a serious policy foundation that is responsive to the political elements that got Trump elected, and has given some substantive speeches on the topic, tying his political philosophy to his Catholic faith. He’s also boned up on foreign policy.
The biggest question facing Rubio will be whether he can demonstrate a depth of conviction and authenticity that has seemed to be lacking in the past.
Mike Pence, vice president
A sitting vice president is always a contender to take up his party’s mantle. But that becomes more questionable when he is the running mate to a one-term president. The last vice president to be sent packing after one term was Republican Dan Quayle in 1992, when President George H.W. Bush lost to Democrat Bill Clinton. Quayle declined to run in 1996 because of health problems, and by the time 2000 rolled around and he was healthy enough to make a go of it, the party had left him behind and he did not mount a serious campaign.
Previous to that, Walter Mondale was the consensus Democratic nominee in 1984 after serving as vice president to President Jimmy Carter, who lost his reelection bid to Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980. Mondale, in turn, lost to Reagan in a 49-state landslide.
So the track record of one-term vice presidents in the modern political era is not great. The stench of defeat tends to linger.
Add to that two other factors. Anyone closely associated with Trump will have a hard time removing that from their public persona. And among all Republican 2024 hopefuls, the 61-year-old Pence will be — by far — most closely connected to Trump outside the president’s own family. It could be that Pence, as one Republican put it to Yahoo News, is “too close to the blast zone.”
Pence’s political brand prior to 2016 was that of a pious but sincere evangelical Christian, reviled by some progressives for being too far right, but respected by conservatives for being a true believer. Evangelicals may have thrown in en masse with Trump, and that may lessen the sting for Pence of having embraced Trumpism — and all of its obvious contradictions with Christianity — so wholeheartedly.
On the other hand, if Trump becomes a memory that evangelicals decide they’d like to suppress or forget altogether, it could be that Pence’s loyalty to his president erases his political future as well.
Tim Scott, U.S. senator from South Carolina
Scott’s broad smile and easygoing demeanor mask a wily political mind. You don’t survive as a Black Republican elected statewide in the South without first-rate political instincts. And Scott has thrived. He also has navigated the Trump years about as well as anyone, like his fellow South Carolinian Nikki Haley.
Haley appointed Scott, then a congressman, to the Senate to replace the retiring conservative Sen. Jim DeMint in 2013. He has since been elected twice to the position, and is up for reelection in 2022.
Scott, 55, is the only Black Republican in the Senate, which makes him the GOP’s most powerful African American lawmaker. He has spent much of the Trump era being asked to weigh in on the president’s more incendiary racial remarks, and has made a name for himself as the rare Republican lawmaker willing to criticize what the president says. He’s also been a leading Republican proponent of criminal justice reform, and has spoken about the 18 times he says he’s been pulled over by police.
At the same time, Scott is quite conservative and has remained an ally of Trump despite their occasional differences on matters of rhetoric.
Scott has capitalized on Trump’s mistakes as well. After Trump made his “very fine people on both sides” remarks about the white supremacists rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, he sought Scott’s advice about how to recover. Scott, who called the president’s comments “indefensible,” shared his thoughts but used the moment to lobby for the president’s support for his Opportunity Zones proposal, which then passed into law. The program is intended to draw billions of investment dollars into lower-income neighborhoods.
When Trump leaves office, it will be fascinating to see how Scott positions himself between the competing wings of the party, and whether his criticisms of Trump will come back to haunt him should he seek the GOP presidential nomination.
Kristi Noem, governor of South Dakota
The 48-year-old first-term governor has drawn attention in 2020 for her rejection of public health guidance on COVID-19. That may not be a feather in her cap, but it’s raised her profile. And in modern politics, it’s an unfortunate reality that negative publicity can be a political asset.
She was elected to Congress in 2010, and served three terms before running for governor in 2018.
As governor, she has occasionally criticized Trump. In 2019, she said Trump’s protectionist trade policies had “devastated” South Dakota’s farming-reliant economy.
But she has followed the president’s lead in being dismissive of basic protections from COVID-19, like wearing masks and social distancing. In a recent tweet, she posted a video of herself hunting and said, “This is how we do social distancing in our state.” South Dakota now has the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in the country.
Rand Paul, U.S. senator from Kentucky
The son of Ron Paul, the stalwart libertarian and former congressman, was briefly seen as a leading contender for the 2016 nomination. He was popular among tea party activists for his stubborn resistance to tax-and-spend initiatives and military interventions abroad, while still appearing more mainstream than his polarizing father.
Paul’s 2016 presidential campaign went nowhere, with many Ron Paul fans flocking to Trump instead. But Rand Paul, 57, was able to firm up an alliance with Trump when he won the presidency, and still retains a following among the GOP’s diminished libertarian wing. He also finds himself teaming up with progressives on occasion, particularly on matters of foreign policy and criminal justice reform.
The question for Paul is whether the coalition that sustained his father’s quixotic presidential bids still exists, whether the younger Paul can expand on it if it does and, most important, whether Republican voters really have an interest in tearing away funding from the welfare state. Paul has spent much of his political career championing privatization schemes and other proposals rejected by economic populists like Trump. So Paul will either have to find a way to effectively moderate his stances on those issues — or simply hope that, under a Democratic president, fiscal hawkishness catches on once again among Republican voters.
Tom Cotton, U.S. senator from Arkansas
Cotton, by any measure, has had a charmed political career. A former infantry officer, he found a way to court tea party insurgents and influential D.C. Republicans simultaneously when he first ran for the House in 2012, mixing libertarian economic ideas with a hawkish foreign policy. A graduate of Harvard and Harvard Law, he also had a résumé that appealed to the GOP’s donor class.
Two years after his election to the House, Cotton easily knocked off a Democratic incumbent and won a Senate seat in 2014. And this year the Arkansas Democratic Party failed to produce a candidate to oppose him, giving Cotton the time to make unsubtle campaign trips to early primary states like New Hampshire.
Since Trump came into office, Cotton — who is still only 43 years old — has positioned himself as a close ally of the president and rarely deviates from the party line. He’s also championed the president’s law-and-order rhetoric since the police killing of George Floyd in May, and in early June authored an opinion piece for the New York Times calling for the military to be deployed against protesters. The piece triggered a staff revolt at the Times, long a bête noire of the right, and the resignation of the paper’s opinion editor.
Cotton has long understood how to navigate the shifting winds on the right, and has done so skillfully. But can he ride the tiger all the way to the GOP nomination in 2024?
Larry Hogan, governor of Maryland
Larry Hogan, the popular Republican governor of one of the country’s most Democratic states, didn’t vote for Trump this year, opting instead to write in Ronald Reagan, who died in 2004. He didn’t vote for Trump in 2016, either. Hogan opted at the time to write in his father, the moderate late GOP Rep. Lawrence Hogan.
The younger Hogan, needless to say, is not on the right wing of his party. He is, however, quite popular in a state that doesn’t usually care for Republicans. Despite his moderation, it’s clear that the 64-year-old Hogan is a skilled politician who’s garnered consistently high marks from Maryland voters on everything from the economy to his handling of the coronavirus.
It’s not often that the GOP nominates a presidential candidate from its moderate wing. But four years is a very long time in politics, and if Republican voters suddenly become desperate for someone with proven appeal outside the GOP faithful, Larry Hogan could be that person.
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