A Crowd of Possible Trump Rivals Renews GOP Fears of a Divided Field
LAS VEGAS — The first auditions for the role of leading Trump alternative consumed the Venetian hotel over the weekend, onstage and off, as nearly a dozen Republican potential presidential candidates tested their strategies and messages days after the former president declared his 2024 candidacy.
Senator Ted Cruz aggressively worked a ballroom filled with activists and donors, taking selfies and staying for handshakes so long the linens had already been cleared. Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump’s former secretary of state, distanced himself further from his old boss, saying that “personality, celebrity, just aren’t going to get it done.” Govt. Larry Hogan of Maryland, a longtime Trump critic, welcomed other Republicans now calling out Mr. Trump as an electoral “loser.” And Gov. Ron DeSantis delivered a keynote address that outlined how his success in Florida could be a nationwide formula for Republicans.
“The state of Florida is where the woke go to die,” declared Mr. DeSantis, who received a raucous reception.
The annual gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition — a group whose leaders include some of the party’s biggest and most dependable contributors — came at a moment of deep vulnerability for Mr. Trump, following a disappointing midterm election for Republicans that many blamed on the former president.
Yet the glut of possible Trump rivals crisscrossing the windowless corridors of the hotel had some Republicans suffering a foreboding sense of déjà vu: That a fractured Republican field in 2024 could — as it did in 2016 — clear the way for Mr. Trump to win the nomination because of his durable hold on a fraction of the party base.
Back then, Mr. Trump romped to the nomination even as a majority of GOP voters in the first two months of primaries had voted for other candidates. He won, in part, because the anti-Trump vote was always split between at least two other candidates. In recent months, Mr. Trump’s 2024 advisers have talked up the possibility of dividing and conquering again.
Mr. Trump’s critics — and even some potential rivals — inside the Republican Party are discussing how to avoid a repeat of 2016.
“It’s a concern, but it will be different,” said Gov. Chris Sununu, Republican of New Hampshire, who attended the Las Vegas gathering and pledged to help police his party’s primary by pressuring weaker candidates to quit. “Everybody understands we don’t want what happened in ’16. Put your ego aside, run hard, but if it ain’t working, it ain’t working.”
Fears of a divided field are why some have embraced Mr. DeSantis as the Republican who appears, in extremely early polling, to be the most formidable potential challenger to Mr. Trump, though political history is littered with early front-runners who fizzled.
The Aftermath of the 2022 Midterm Elections
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A moment of reflection. In the aftermath of the midterms, Democrats and Republicans face key questions about the future of their parties. With the House and Senate now decided, here’s where things stand:
A new era for House Democrats. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to serve in the post and the face of House Democrats for two decades, will not pursue a leadership post in the next Congress. A trio of new leaders are poised to take over their caucus’s top ranks.
Divided government. What does a Republican-controlled House and a Democratic-run Senate mean for the next two years? Most likely a return to the gridlock and brinkmanship that have defined a divided federal government in recent years.
“One of the reasons why Florida has done well is because over the last few years, we stood out as the free state of Florida,” Mr. DeSantis said. He never mentioned Mr. Trump by name but contrasted his approach to the pandemic with that taken by the Trump administration and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist. “We refused to let the state of Florida descend into some type of Fauci-ian dystopia.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition gathering drew the full range of Republican Party aspirants, a sign that Mr. Trump’s early candidacy had not dimmed the ambitions of other rivals or flashed the field-clearing power he once had.
“All he did was emphasize his weakness,” Mr. Sununu said in an interview of Mr. Trump’s kickoff. “OK, you’re the former president, but you’re actually, as of today, now just like one of 12 people running for president.”
Among those speaking at the Venetian were former top administration officials like Mr. Pompeo, former Vice President Mike Pence and Nikki Haley, the former United Nations ambassador, as well as past 2016 rivals, including Mr. Cruz and Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey.
Not everyone agreed that Mr. Trump’s standing had diminished in a party that he has singularly dominated for years.
“There are some voices in Washington who want him to magically disappear and ride off into the sunset,” Mr. Cruz said in an interview, while declining to discuss his own 2024 ambitions. “I don’t think that’s going to happen. That’s not realistic. He has a voice. He has a powerful voice, and he’s going to use it.”
Mr. Trump is the only declared major 2024 candidate so far, and he had initially planned to skip the summit entirely. But he ended up joining via live video and received a standing ovation, as he ticked off his pro-Israel record.
Mr. Trump also offered his diagnosis for the Republican Party’s poor showing in the midterms, obliquely blaming the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, a ruling that was anchored by three of his appointees. But Mr. Trump avoided using the word “abortion” in an unusually elliptical answer.
“It was a tough issue and energized the other side,” Mr. Trump said. “People came out on the other side for a specific purpose, and it was unfortunate because in many ways it was such a great achievement. But there was a specific issue that made it more difficult.”
Other Republicans who ripped Mr. Trump for the party’s poor showing in the House, Senate and governors’ races—some directly, some by implication—were also well received by the crowd.
“Excuses, lies and toxic politics will not win elections,” Mr. Hogan said in his speech.
Mr. Hogan was among the potential candidates already gaming out how a fractured field might play out. He said the party had three basic factions: 30 percent “die-hard” Trump supporters, 20 percent who “can’t stand” Mr. Trump and 50 percent persuasive voters.
Mr. Hogan said in an interview that others have adopted not just his posture but language, including his line from a speech in May mocking Mr. Trump’s old boasts that people would tire of all the winning. “Well, I’m tired of our party losing,” Mr. Hogan said then.
Mr. Christie used a variation of that tired-of-losing line recently with the Republican Governors Association and again in Las Vegas. And Mr. Pompeo posted a version of it on Twitter ahead of his Friday speech; though mr. Pompeo had included the line in his draft remarks, he skipped over it from the stage.
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” Mr. Hogan said, sounding more frustrated than flattered about the phrase’s newfound popularity. “I had maybe a different lane that wasn’t very wide of a lane,” Mr. Hogan said of being an early anti-Trump figure, “and now the lane is wider, and there’s people trying to merge into the lane.”
The technical details of how the Republican nominating contest works could benefit a leading candidate like Mr. Trump if the rest of the field remains split. Many states deliver their delegates on a winner-take-all basis, even if the winner finishes with less than a majority of the vote.
That topic came up in a conversation in recent days between James Carville, the Democratic strategist, and Reince Priebus, the former Republican Party chairman and Mr. Trump’s first chief of staff, at an event at the University of Southern California.
“Republicans do winner-take-all,” Mr. Carville explained, adding: “What that means is that if Trump retains the support of 40 percent of the Republicans and he has four opponents —”
“He gets all the delegates,” Mr. Priebus said, completing the thought.
Still, political parties can unify in opposition quickly. Democrats did in 2020.
After then-candidate Joseph R. Biden Jr. won the South Carolina primary, several of his remaining rivals — Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke — dropped out in quick succession. They endorsed Mr. Biden as the last remaining alternative to stop Senator Bernie Sanders, whom many in the party saw as too liberal to win.
It worked. Days later, Mr. Biden swept through Super Tuesday and won the nomination.
Mr. Christie, for one, was dismissive of the idea that a split field would again help Mr. Trump. “Everybody makes the mistake of looking at the next campaign through the lens of the last one,” he said in an interview. “And they’re never the same.”
Mr. Christie also cautioned against making early assumptions about which potential candidates would draw support or money from each other. “Why would you presume that Mike Pompeo and Nikki Haley and Mike Pence wouldn’t be fishing out of Donald Trump’s pond?” he said. “They were all members of his administration.”
Ms. Haley was explicit that she is looking at a presidential run “in a serious way.”
“When people underestimate me, it’s always fun,” she said. “I’ve never lost an election, and I’m not going to start now.”
Alex Conant, who was a senior advisor on Senator Marco Rubio’s failed 2016 presidential run, said that every conversation he has had with potential 2024 campaign strategists was “about the need not to cannibalize” the non-Trump field. “They’re going to be competing over the same donors, media oxygen and time on the debate stage,” he said.
The other Republican candidate who is nationally known is Mr. Pence, who just published a book and has begun to shed the loyal lieutenant posture he has had toward Mr. Trump, particularly over his actions around the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot.
On Friday, Mr. Pence delivered an energetic and well-received speech that ticked through the accomplishments of what he called the “Trump-Pence” administration, mentioning Mr. Trump’s name only once and in that hyphenated context. But he drew precious few distinctions with the president he served, going out of his way to praise Mr. Trump for moving the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, for instance. “All the credit goes to the man who made the decision,” Mr. Pence said.
The speech puzzled those expecting the former vice president to take the opportunity to define himself separately from Mr. Trump.
“I think Mike Pence delivered one of the greatest pro-Trump speeches I’ve ever heard,” raved Morton A. Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, a pro-Israel group. “I thought he would be more inclined to differentiate himself.”