President Donald Trump’s defeat has set off a flurry of activity as would-be successors start to position themselves for 2024 and a battle to lead a Trump-less Republican Party begins to take shape.
Likely Republican candidates are about to descend on Georgia to campaign in a pair of Senate runoffs that will determine control of the chamber. They’re taking to Fox News to defend Trump’s refusal to concede. The Republican National Committee is bracing for a possible fight over its chairmanship. And Donald Trump Jr. is aggressively staking out a role as a future GOP powerbroker.
Party officials, meanwhile, are grappling with how to keep intact the massive political infrastructure that Trump helped assemble with him on his way out of the White House.
While Trump has been defeated, he has not been vanquished. After receiving the second-highest popular vote total in history, and enjoying a core of supporters numbering tens of millions strong, he is positioned to wield outsized power over where the GOP goes from here. Anyone who wants to run in 2024 will have a hard time winning the nomination against his opposition.
"Trump is leaving office but he has changed the political DNA of the party for the foreseeable future," said GOP strategist Ken Spain, a former top National Republican Congressional Committee official. "Presidential candidates and congressional leaders will continue to ally themselves with the ascendant blue-collar wing of the GOP."
Yet Trump’s loss also means the party will need to find a way to distinguish itself from a president who turned off a majority of voters.
The Georgia races give 2024 GOP aspirants an immediate platform to showcase what they can do for the party. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton is expected to make multiple trips to the state, where Georgia Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler are facing Jan. 5 runoffs. If both lose, Democrats would assume control of the Senate.
Florida Sen. Rick Scott is slated to make his first appearance later this week and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott is also likely to travel there. Former UN Ambassodor Nikki Haley issued a pair of tweets over the weekend asking for help in Georgia. Donald Trump Jr. also took to his social media account to highlight the runoffs, and a spokesman for the younger Trump said to “expect him to be very involved.”
“It’ll be like Iowa during the straw poll era. A modern-day Ames in the Peach State,” said Georgia-based Republican strategist Chip Lake, referring to the contest that’s been a rite-of-passage for presidential hopefuls ahead of the Iowa caucuses.
Looking to curry favor with Trump’s supporters, would-be candidates are taking to Fox News to cast doubt on the legitimacy of Biden’s win and to call declarations of his victory premature. Appearing Sunday morning, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said, “The media is desperately trying to get everyone to coronate Joe Biden as the next president.”
Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley went on Trump-favorite Tucker Carlson’s program to announce he planned to introduce an election integrity bill. And during a Thursday appearance on Laura Ingraham’s show, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis suggested that state legislatures could override vote counts in their states and appoint Trump electors.
Party officials predict that ambitious Republicans will use Trump’s lame duck period to rally the conservative base by going after President-elect Joe Biden and his cabinet nominees.
Two potential 2024 contenders, meanwhile, are poised to take on leadership roles that will give them entrée to powerful donors. Rick Scott has launched a run for the chairmanship of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey is expected to take the reins of the Republican Governors Association.
Donald Trump Jr., meanwhile, is moving to demonstrate his influence over the party and to enforce loyalty to the president. The younger Trump tweeted out to his 6.2 million followers last week that “the total lack of action from virtually all of the ‘2024 GOP hopefuls’ in highlighting election fraud “is pretty amazing.”
“They have a perfect platform to show that they’re willing & able to fight but they will cower to the media mob instead,” Trump added. “Don’t worry @realDonaldTrump will fight & they can watch as usual!”
The warning shot sent 2024 hopefuls scrambling. Within minutes Haley tweeted that Trump “and the American people deserve transparency & fairness as the votes are counted” and Cotton directed his followers to “Support Trump’s legal fund.”
But the dust-up has illustrated the differences between future candidates as they grapple with how to align themselves with Trump. Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, who has clashed with the president, has taken a more nuanced approach, saying that “all legal votes need to be counted” and that “this is our American system and it works.”
While Donald Trump Jr. himself is frequently mentioned as a 2024 candidate, those close to him say he’s more interested in leveraging his influence to help like-minded conservatives. He’s expected to campaign extensively for candidates in the 2022 midterms.
Republicans also face imminent question questions about their political organization without Trump the White House. The party is gearing up for a January race for RNC chair; sitting GOP chairwoman Ronna McDaniel has yet to announce whether she’ll seek a third term, though she would likely be regarded as the frontrunner should she do so.
Ohio GOP chairwoman Jane Timken has also been mentioned as a potential candidate. And Republicans have buzzed about California party Committeemember Harmeet Dhillon, who took to Twitter Saturday to call for “a hard family conversation about several specific rotting organizations and a class of mediocre but cunning grifters who control the establishment.”
Reached by email Sunday, Dhillon said she was not considering a bid for the RNC post.
Without a clear leader who can raise money for the party, Republicans have begun discussing how to ensure their apparatus remains well-funded. Trump used his fundraising sway to help bankroll a sprawling field, data, and digital program.
“What we’ve seen in the past is, when President Bush left office, the data and ground game systems that are so important can lose prioritization and funding,” said Mike Shields, a former RNC chief of staff. “If President Trump doesn’t win, then we really face an important period of time to ensure that party leadership really prioritizes and puts resources into the ecosystem because they won’t have a titular head of the party like Trump doing it.”
Other party officials have begun talking about the desire to form an outside group devoted to taking on the Biden White House. While Republicans have super PACs focused on House and Senate races, they say there is a need for a well-funded group that can rally conservative opposition to Biden’s agenda.
Holding Democrats “accountable at all levels aggressively is not a choice but a requirement for Republicans and their affiliated super PACs for the foreseeable future,” said Chris LaCivita, a Republican strategist who oversaw an anti-Biden outside group during the 2020 campaign.
For all the early deliberations about the GOP’s future, people close to the president say he’s not going to disappear. Trump aides predict that he’ll want to have influence over the party and that he’ll aggressively go after Biden.
They’re also convinced he’ll remain deeply involved in House and Senate races. The president spent part of Election Day quizzing House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and White House political director Brian Jack about down-ballot races.
“He sure as hell doesn’t look to be planning to ride off into the sunset anytime soon,” said Terry Sullivan, the campaign manager on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential bid.