Republicans are warning not to write off former President Trump’s 2024 White House bid, arguing that he’s still the presumptive front-runner despite signs that some in the GOP are ready to move on.
Strategists and officials began sounding the death knell for Trump’s political career after last year’s midterm elections, as the former president’s mounting legal problems and continued fallout from the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol raised questions about whether he was too damaged to continue on as the GOP’s de facto leader.
But Republican operatives say it’s too soon to discount the former president, even as his potential 2024 rivals — most notably Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) — attract an increasing share of the public’s attention.
“When you’re in Florida at these grassroots meetings, yeah, you hear ‘Ron DeSantis, Ron DeSantis, Ron DeSantis,’” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist. “But outside of Florida, it’s still Donald Trump.”
“I think that a lot of people have been too quick to write off Donald Trump, from the media to donors to commentators,” he added. “You have to remember, this is a former U.S. president who has a good handle on what needs to be done in Washington, and he’s extremely popular with the base.”
Trump has also received an apparent reprieve from allegations that he mishandled government documents after classified material was found in President Biden’s Delaware residence and an office in Washington, D.C. While both matters are under investigation by special counsels, and observers are quick to emphasize the differences in the two cases, Republicans say the latest revelations help Trump.
“It takes a lot of pressure off of him, because Republican voters start to remember that whatever the Democrats accuse Trump of, the Democrats are doing themselves,” one former Trump campaign aide said. “For Republican primary voters, that’s a big thing.”
Other Republicans are quick to argue that Trump has unparalleled political resilience. The former president has faced near-constant scrutiny since launching his first presidential campaign in 2015, so counting him out now would be premature, they say.
“Shrugging off Mr. Trump’s 2024 candidacy or writing his political obituary is a fool’s errand — he endures persecution and eludes prosecution like no other public figure,” Kellyanne Conway, a former top adviser to Trump, wrote in an essay published by The New York Times last week. “That could change, of course, though that cat has nine lives.”
Of course, that’s not to say that Trump isn’t facing significant challenges as he looks to reclaim the White House following his 2020 loss to President Biden; Conway herself noted that “it would also be foolish to assume that Mr. Trump’s path to another presidency would be smooth and secure.”
A string of losses by Trump’s endorsed candidates in last year’s midterm elections prompted many Republicans to question his influence and political instincts. He’s also facing a slew of legal issues ranging from the special counsel investigation into his handling of classified documents to his alleged efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election in Georgia.
Several Republicans also described his budding 2024 presidential campaign as anemic and uninspired,
“If you’re running for president, you do your announcement, you go to Iowa and have a rally. You go to New Hampshire,” one veteran Republican strategist said. “It just doesn’t seem like he has that planned out. He hasn’t done that yet.”
There are signs that that may be about to change. Trump is set to make the first public appearance of his 2024 campaign next week in South Carolina, where he’s expected to unveil his leadership team in the state. He will be joined there by two of the state’s most prominent Republicans, Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Gov. Henry McMaster.
Trump is also moving to reclaim control of his social media accounts two years after he was booted off of Twitter and Facebook in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
On Tuesday, his campaign sent a letter to Facebook’s parent company Meta, arguing that Trump’s ban from the site “has dramatically destroyed and inhibited the public discourse” and asked that his account be reinstated.
Trump’s once-powerful Twitter account was returned to his control in November after Tesla CEO Elon Musk bought the company, though Trump has yet to resume using it.
And for all the chatter about DeSantis, the hard-charging Florida governor who’s emerged as a top pick for the 2024 Republican presidential nod, there are still signs that Trump remains the favorite.
A Morning Consult poll released on Wednesday showed the former president running ahead of DeSantis by a 17-point margin in a hypothetical primary field that also includes former Vice President Mike Pence, former Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.
Some other early polls don’t bode as well for Trump. One survey from USA Today and Suffolk University released last month found DeSantis leading Trump by 23 points in a hypothetical one-on-one primary match-up.
Of course, DeSantis hasn’t made a final decision on a 2024 presidential bid, and a potential campaign announcement is still likely months away. Yet there are still signs that Trump is taking the budding rivalry seriously. In a Monday interview on the conservative podcast “The Water Cooler,” Trump suggested he has no intention of going easy on DeSantis if the two find themselves going head to head in a GOP primary.
“You know, now I hear he might want to run against me,” Trump said. “So we’ll handle that the way I handle things.”