The lukewarm response to former President Trump’s announcement that he will once again seek the White House could provide a key opening for other Republicans still on the fence about whether to challenge him in 2024.
While the Tuesday campaign launch drew praise from Trump’s most loyal allies, the otherwise skeptical responses to an unusually restrained performance reflected the former president’s seemingly weakened position in the GOP after a lackluster midterm election performance.
That could open the door even wider to a hard-charging Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), riding high on his midterm win with the wind at his back — as well as to other would-be challengers.
“I think there are a lot of people today looking at that speech and seeing an opening,” one Republican strategist said. “He’s up there trying to explain the midterms, calling himself a victim. I think it came off as kind of a show of his weaknesses rather than a well-articulated argument for running again.”
Of course, Trump has been counted out before. When he launched his first — and so far only — successful bid for the White House in 2015, many Republicans shrugged off his candidacy early on, believing that he was more of an attention-seeking pariah than a serious contender for the presidency.
“I can’t count him out. He’s still the favorite,” Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist and former congressional candidate, said. “I think what you saw last night was a recognition that 2024 is going to be different than 2016 or 2020. But one of the things he made clear was that he still wants to be the outsider, even as a former president.”
O’Connell said that Trump struck the right tone with his announcement. Instead of his usual bombast, Trump opted to focus more on issues, like inflation, border security and crime, setting up a clear contrast between himself and President Biden, O’Connell said.
“Trump really had his 2024 game face on in terms of the issue-focused tone. And I think what you saw from him was a recognition that 2024 is going to be different from 2016, from 2020,” O’Connell said. “I think one of the things he wants to do going forward is have that compare and contrast with the Biden administration.”
Still, what O’Connell saw as focus, others saw as “low-energy,” in the words of one former ally, and a marked departure from the speeches and rallies that have endeared him to large swaths of the Republican base.
And Trump is beginning his campaign at a time when Republicans are already questioning his role in the party. The midterm elections saw several high-profile candidates backed by Trump lose key federal and state offices, prompting many in the GOP to blame the former president’s controversial political brand for their lackluster performance.
While Republicans are poised to win a narrow majority in the House, they failed to recapture control of the Senate and missed out on an opportunity to flip key gubernatorial mansions in states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
There are signs Trump’s campaign launch is already pushing the budding Republican presidential primary contest into a more confrontational phase.
Mike Pompeo, Trump’s former secretary of State and a potential 2024 primary hopeful, took a thinly veiled swipe at his former boss on Wednesday, tweeting that Americans need “leaders who are looking forward, not staring in the rearview mirror claiming victimhood.” That tweet appeared to be in reference to Trump’s repeated assertion on Tuesday that he was a “victim.”
Another prospective White House hopeful, former Vice President Mike Pence, predicted during an appearance on “Fox & Friends” that Republicans will “have better choices” than Trump come 2024.
Trump’s announcement also received a cool reception on Capitol Hill.
And Stephen A. Schwarzman, the CEO of the private equity firm Blackstone and a major GOP donor, told Axios in a statement after Trump’s Tuesday announcement that he would not support the former president’s comeback bid, saying that he would support another eventual candidate for the party’s 2024 nomination.
“It is time for the Republican Party to turn to a new generation of leaders and I intend to support one of them in the presidential primaries,” he said.
There now remains little doubt within the party that other Republicans will jump into the presidential race, despite Trump’s efforts to freeze out any competition. One Republican donor said that Trump’s announcement lifts any remaining uncertainty about his intentions and paves the way for other would-be candidates to jump in.
“It was always important for Trump to announce first, because his spotlight was fading,” the donor said. “He needs the campaign in order to stay relevant. I think most other candidates can take their time, but at least they know where he stands.”
But it is DeSantis, who won reelection last week in a landslide, who poses perhaps the biggest threat to Trump’s bid to return to power. Although Trump remains the most popular Republican in the country for now, recent polling shows DeSantis gaining ground in a hypothetical primary match-up against the former president, and even leading him among Florida Republicans.
Polling released on Monday by the conservative Club for Growth showed DeSantis leading Trump by double-digit margins among voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first states to vote in presidential nominating contests. The group’s polling in Florida, meanwhile, found Trump trailing DeSantis by 26 percentage points.
“The polling numbers are already trending in the wrong direction for [Trump], and in the one state where DeSantis and Trump are on a level playing field when it comes to name recognition and engagement, it’s even worse for him,” Keith Naughton, a veteran Republican strategist, said. “That tells me when people see both of them side-by-side, Trump has a problem.”
While some Republicans saw Trump’s early campaign announcement as an effort to shutout potential rivals, Naughton said Trump’s entrance into the race may end up having the opposite effect.
“We all knew he was going to announce for president, but he delivered a dud after promising fireworks for months,” Naughton said. “It wasn’t the kind of thing that’s going to put anybody off their plans.”