NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Will this go down as the week that the grand plan to deny Donald Trump the nomination fell apart?
For months, high-level Republican lawmakers, donors and strategists eager to block Trump have described, in separate conversations with me, an endgame to the presidential primary.
When it becomes clear in the early state and national polling who is consolidating support, the most influential figures with ties to the lagging candidates will stage a sort of political intervention and tell them it’s time to quit and rally to the strongest alternative to Trump.
Such a plot always struck me as a bit far-fetched, for starters because politicians aren’t known for putting party ahead of self. Yet the appetite among elite Republicans to move past Trump was and is so immense I thought there could at least be a do-the-right-thing effort.
Yet as spring turns to summer, traditionally the period when presidential hopefuls consider whether they’re gaining any traction, this vision seems more fantasy than strategy.
In fact, if Trump does emerge as the GOP standard bearer next year we will look back on this week to grasp why, just like in 2016, he was able to take advantage of a divided opposition.
There was Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ muffed launch, the fitting, sad trombone conclusion to a preannouncement period in which his stock sagged, at least among political insiders.
Nobody was more thrilled about DeSantis’ decision to begin his campaign on a balky Twitter stream than his current and prospective Republican rivals: Trump sees his fellow Floridian as weaker today than at any point since last year’s midterm, and the other non-Trumps are hardly going to step aside anytime soon, even after DeSantis’ eye-popping first fundraising haul.
And if DeSantis needs any more evidence that his giving the Heisman to the press has earned him only bad will, well, he can just take a look at the headlines from a range of outlets. Don’t discount this: Complain as they may about the media, Republican primary voters are just as susceptible to the tides of coverage as their Democratic counterparts.
Shortly before DeSantis began his bid for the office of Washington and Lincoln in a chat room with other very online influencers, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) entered the race in a fashion that further underscored why it’s going to be so hard to dethrone Trump.
Announcing his candidacy Monday in the gym of his alma mater, Charleston Southern University, Scott matched DeSantis’ Elon Musk with Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Larry Ellison (Billionaire-Oracle).
Each of them conveyed an important message.
By laying hands on Scott, Thune, the second-ranking Senate Republican, sent a signal to the wider, pre-Trump GOP establishment that the only Black senator in the GOP is one of them. That may not mean a lot of votes, but along with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s tacit embrace (I reported last year that McConnell was enthusiastic about a Scott candidacy), it conveys a message to the Republican donor class.
Thune may soon have more company in the Senate GOP: He told Scott supporters privately later in the day that other Republican lawmakers would already be backing their colleague, the only senator in the race, were it not for their concerns about angering Trump, according to a person present for the conversation. Even more to the point, Thune, when asked who Scott as nominee could win back to the party, asked, “How much time you got?” and then ticked off demographic groups ranging from women to moderates to educated voters.
Such potential is what will make Scott appealing to victory-hungry Republicans. They’re also the sort of party regulars DeSantis will ultimately need as part of any coalition he forms to stop Trump. If such voters migrate to Scott, that task gets harder.
While Thune’s appearance, along with the veritable battalion of former Bush and Romney strategists working for Scott, signaled establishment acceptability, Ellison demonstrated why coalescence could prove difficult against Trump.
Scott has relentlessly wooed the Oracle co-founder. The senator flew to Hawaii to meet with Ellison over the holidays and even name-checked him as a “mentor” in his announcement speech.
Now, Ellison is prepared to spend tens of millions of dollars on behalf of Scott.
As the saying goes, presidential campaigns don’t end, they run out of money. But that’s less of a factor when one of the world’s richest men is willing to part with tens of millions of dollars on a super PAC extending the life of a candidacy.
Ellison was hardly alone: Also in the stands, before being herded away by Scott campaign officials after the event, were a group of noticeably well-tailored individuals. The donors later convened at a restaurant on Charleston’s old market before attending another event with Scott on Tuesday morning at the luxe Hotel Bennett, where many of them stayed.
Lastly, there was Scott’s speech itself. There was alliterative call-and-response (“Victimhood or victory?”), there was entering the crowd at the end, there were testimonials to America’s greatness and there was the gospel of Jesus Christ, self-help and the power of positive thinking. It was the Black church meets the mega church, set to a Lee Greenwood-Thomas Jefferson soundtrack while Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan smiled down from above over a Chick-fil-A lunch.
In other words, Scott happily railed against wokeness without ever saying the word “woke,” precisely the sort of messaging that will appeal to Republicans done with Trump who want a duller edge than DeSantis. That may not be enough for Scott to emerge as Trump’s top rival — let alone claim the nomination of a party craving the clenched first more than the open hand — but he could find a constituency.
Yes, Black Republicans have had boomlets before. But Herman Cain and Ben Carson didn’t begin with nearly $22 million in the bank and have Senate leaders and plutocrats, to say nothing of respected moderates such as former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and former Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner at their announcements.
Another reveal this week came from the emerging Hamlet-on-the-James, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin. Axios reported — right as Scott launched and DeSantis was preparing to — that Youngkin was again considering a presidential bid. The story irritated some members of the governor’s inner circle, who want to focus on Virginia’s legislative midterms this fall, but what was striking was their denials stopped short of, well, actually denying that he will get in the race.
Youngkin’s refusal to fully rule out a 2024 bid illustrates both how much he wants to keep the option open and the lingering hunger in the top ranks of the party for another option. That said — and insert a trigger warning here for veterans of the Wes Clark, Rick Perry and Michael Bloomberg campaigns — late entrants have invariably flopped in modern primaries.
But, again, this is all delightful to Trump, who is thrilled about the prospect of more candidates carving up the opposition. Never one for subtext, the former president responded to Scott’s entry by gleefully saying the primary “is rapidly loading up with lots of people.”
Lastly, there was one other sign this week of Trump’s unique strength in the GOP, but you may have had to look for it. It was when former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley used an appearance before reporters in New Hampshire to target DeSantis for “copying Trump” with his speaking style and even “his hand gestures.”
It was an admission from Haley, the first candidate after the former president to enter the race, that she’s not breaking through and must dislodge DeSantis to take on Trump. It was also an illustration of how little regard the other Republicans in the race have for DeSantis and the risk the Florida governor faces of these candidates cutting a deal with Trump to stay in the race and divide up the vote in exchange for some promise of, say, the vice-presidency or wokeness czar.
Perhaps most significant, Haley’s criticism of the person in second rather than the one leading most state and national surveys by double-digits highlighted the central challenge non-Trump Republicans are confronting: their own voters.
After years of absorbing attacks on Trump from Democrats and the media — and the former president happily embracing, to borrow from Scott, the role of both victim and victor — the GOP rank-and-file is largely inured to frontal attacks on a man most of them have now voted for twice in general elections.
“The conservative media ecosystem has built a giant wall of inoculation around everything Trump,” explained David Kochel. “All our voters have ever known about Trump is he’s constantly under attack, so he’s got these antibodies built up.”
Kochel, a native Iowan and longtime Republican strategist, has talked to voters in his home state at length about Trump’s candidacy. He has consistently found that they defend or rationalize most every critique of the former president. It’s not that they aren’t aware of the indictments arrayed against him (literally, folks), it’s that “they excuse it all because it’s tribal,” he said.
To forcefully condemn Trump as a menace to democracy is to echo the other tribe, to put on the blue jersey. Shaming your own voters is not a recipe for victory.
Kochel thinks Trump can be stopped in the primary but believes his party’s voters require “a permission structure.” It’s equal parts electability — a strong and persistent drumbeat of arguments that Trump can’t win the general election, a refrain I heard from the many middle- to upper middle-class voters at Scott’s announcement — and confronting the former president from the right on the border wall with Mexico, Covid restrictions and government spending.
We’ve already seen some of this criticism from DeSantis since he entered the race. And there’s a debate taking place within his orbit about how much to balance introducing the Florida governor and how quickly to get to confronting Trump, framing him, as one DeSantis adviser put it, “as a whiner, not a winner.”
Somebody will have to.
For anti-Trump Republicans, faith in the invisible hand has taken on a whole new meaning that has nothing to do with Adam Smith.
They’re forever waiting for something or somebody to stop Trump.
Now it’s local and federal prosecutors.
Or maybe it’s a killer takedown on a debate stage from Chris Christie or some other candidate willing to commit to a political murder-suicide. That’s a task, incidentally, that could be more difficult given that the Republican National Committee is planning to require that candidates garner 40,000 individual donors from 20 states to appear in the initial debates — and isn’t inclined to back down from that threshold, I’m told.
Or maybe, and yes, you do hear this in private conversations all the time, Mother Nature will take its course on Trump before the election.
But hope is not a strategy.
And not only must trailing candidates be willing to submit to an intervention, but voters do, too.
As Scott wound up his speech Monday — and as if to be suddenly shaken from that Kempian fever dream and thrust back to Trumpian reality — I ran into Mick Mulvaney back by the press pen. The former South Carolina congressman, who was one of Trump’s four chiefs of staff, cast the primary in blunt terms.
“It comes down to what Republican primary voters want,” said Mulvaney. “If they want a knife fighter who pays porn stars, they’re gonna get it.” Then, pointing his finger back toward the stage, he said of Scott: “If they want that, they can get it.”
Precedent and polling would indicate Republicans prefer the former, I pointed out.
Mulvaney acknowledged as much, but he was quick to point out that it’s early in the race.
And then, keeping hope alive, he said it was unlikely DeSantis or Scott would be “charged with a bunch of crimes.”