They lost the White House, control of the U.S. Senate and failed to gain back control of the House. But conservatives are partying like it’s 2019.
Donald Trump – no longer president, not yet a candidate – will be the headline speaker this weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference meeting in Dallas. Also speaking will be his son Donald Trump Jr. and a slew of Trump loyalists, including former Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado and former Trump medical adviser Ronny Jackson of Texas.
Not scheduled to appear? Conservatives like Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah and Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, both of whom voted against Trump during the 45th president’s impeachment and Senate trial. Nor are there announced appearances by those who might be mulling a 2024 run, such as former Vice President Mike Pence or former Trump Cabinet members Mike Pompeo and Nikki Haley.
It’s an awkward situation for Republicans as the party seeks to reposition itself for 2022 and 2024. On paper, the GOP should be optimistic: Redistricting, retirements and historical trends suggest Republicans have an excellent chance of taking back control of the House next year and a real chance, too, to flip the 50-50 Senate. With political observers skeptical that the now-popular, but 78-year-old, President Joe Biden will seek reelection in 2024, the next presidential campaign could be an open race, giving Republicans an advantage.
But as long as Trump – embattled legally but still very popular with a critical part of the GOP base – refuses to step aside, the future of the party and its hopeful leaders is in limbo.
“A lot of folks in large part are waiting to see what the former president does,” says Matt Terrill, a partner at Firehouse Strategies and former consultant to the Republican Party of Florida. “You can be a potential candidate out there running. But at the end of the day, they’re waiting out there on the sidelines and waiting to see what the former president does.”
And with Trump, the wait-out is a bit more complicated, experts say. Trump’s legal problems – his eponymous company is under criminal indictment in New York – could complicate a second run at the presidency. Further, Trump is known for his intolerance of those who cross him or challenge him, meaning would-be contenders have to make sure they don’t make too many waves if they dip a toe into the political waters.
Haley, for example, criticized Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection attempt on the Capitol, telling a Republican National Committee meeting that the president’s actions would “be judged harshly by history.”
Two weeks ago, Haley was in first-caucuses state Iowa, delivering an address to the Republican Party of Iowa’s Lincoln Dinner, a forum for would-be presidential contenders. But at that dinner, she praised Trump and said she would not run if the former president decided to try to get his old job back.
Pence would seem to be the heir apparent, if Trump indeed announces he will step aside. The former vice president has been a consistent social conservative popular with the religious right and was a loyal – and mostly quiet – ally of Trump’s when the two governed together.
But Pence angered Trump ultra-loyalists when he rejected calls to refuse to participate in the certification of Biden’s win in Congress.
Months after Capitol rioters, some hauling a gallows, shouted “hang Pence!” the vice president was booed and called a “traitor” at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Florida last month. He won’t face that problem at CPAC, where Pence is not scheduled to appear with his former running mate.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a perennial CPAC favorite who typically gets the joint jumping with a passionate address? He’s skipping the event in his home state this weekend, citing family obligations.
Then there’s Pompeo, Trump’s former secretary of state. He won’t be at CPAC but the Kansan is scheduled to be the headline speaker at the end of the month at the Silver Elephant Dinner, the South Carolina Republican Party’s annual fundraiser and an important stop for candidates in this early primary state.
Pompeo is trying hard to straddle the line between setting himself up as Trump’s GOP successor without alienating Trump’s base or even other, more Trump-skeptic parts of the party.
“It’s a unique position for people like Pompeo, to occupy the same lane as Trump without appearing to share the same lane as Trump,” says Nathaniel Birkhead, a political science professor at Kansas State University.
“The bench is small. It’s very small,” Birkhead says of the potential GOP field. And since Birkhead doesn’t “see Trumpism falling apart in the next two to four years,” there isn’t a lot of room for anyone who hasn’t been consistently defensive and protective of Trump, he says.
On the sidelines but still very much in the public eye is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Trump hasn’t remarked on the public praise Biden gave DeSantis – who similarly had kind words for the man who beat Trump in 2020 – when the governor and sitting president huddled with Florida officials to address the deadly condominium collapse in Surfside.
DeSantis pleased a certain segment of the party when he refused to shut down Florida in the midst of the pandemic, citing the impact on the economy. He has since battled with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the cruise industry over whether vacation cruisers should have to show proof of vaccinations against COVID-19 before boarding.
DeSantis may have some issues in a national campaign because of questions about his handling of the pandemic, says Michael Binder, associate political science professor at the University of North Florida.
More importantly, “The question is, what will happen when Trump turns on him?” Binder says. “Something like that’s going to come, especially if Trump views this guy as potentially overtaking him.” A CPAC straw poll held in February had Trump in the lead – but DeSantis led when the former president and fellow Florida resident was taken out of the running.
Trump has been back to his old self – holding rallies, raising money and suing people and companies that cross him, as he did recently with a lawsuit against Facebook and Twitter for suspending his account. But that can only take the former president so far, says Dave Woodard, a former Clemson University political scientist and GOP consultant in the Palmetto State.
“Trump may be jumping around,” but that does not necessarily amount to anything more than some “raw political power,” Woodard says.
“He still has his (loyal) group, but that’s going to shrink and shrink and shrink,” Woodard predicts.
At CPAC this weekend, however, it’s still the Trump Show.
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