There are two Republican primaries as an election season that defies conventional metrics and campaign trail traditions crashes into its fall stretch.
There’s the one-man race involving Donald Trump, a former president polling higher than all his rivals put together but whose onrushing train of criminal trials increases the possibility that the GOP could nominate a convicted felon.
Well below is the contest in which one candidate in the teens, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – and everyone else in the single digits – aren’t piling on the front-runner, but instead the political neophyte Vivek Ramaswamy, who has gotten under their skins and is making a mockery of their campaigns.
Unless someone in the brawl for a distant second place can climb into the top tier sometime in the next four months and consolidate opposition to Trump – a feat most have never even dared to attempt – the ex-president may enjoy a GOP coronation. This is despite the fact that in what could, according to current signs, be a tight rematch between Trump and President Joe Biden, the ex-president faces significant vulnerabilities among swing voters in the crucial handful of states likely to decide the general election.
The stasis in the Republican nominating contest at the traditional post-Labor Day acceleration point will have profound national implications. Trump has already convinced millions of his supporters that he is the current legitimate president after his false claims of fraud in the 2020 election. An ex-commander in chief who lionizes autocrats is promising a presidency of “retribution” and a quest to strip away many of the constraints on a president’s power.
But first, Trump’s bid to overturn his 2020 election loss could face accountability in criminal trials in Washington, DC, and Georgia that could ultimately cost him his freedom but that could also cause him to fight for a White House return as a convicted criminal. Trump is also set to face another two trials next year – over his alleged mishandling of classified documents and arising from a hush money payment to an adult film star.
This week alone, legal dramas will swirl around a slate of Trump associates and co-defendants, and while unlikely to change the trajectory of the election or Trump’s own legal fate, those developments will deepen the extraordinary legal stench surrounding his camp. Former Trump trade official Peter Navarro goes on trial Tuesday in Washington, charged with contempt of Congress after refusing to cooperate with subpoenas from the since-disbanded House select committee that investigated January 6, 2021.
And several officials who allegedly aided a conspiracy to overthrow the 2020 election are due to be arraigned in Fulton County, Georgia, on Wednesday. Trump last week waived his right to appear in person, but the campaign is still reverberating from the GOP front-runner having his mug shot taken at the Fulton County jail last month – which he has turned into a rallying issue for supporters who view him as a hero. Also on Wednesday, in an unrelated matter, Trump has been called for a deposition in a lawsuit he’s brought against his former attorney Michael Cohen.
These legal dates only further the growing impression that the most important events in the 2024 election are likely to unfold in courtrooms and jury boxes rather than at state fairs in Iowa and town halls in New Hampshire, where Trump’s GOP rivals are seeking to break out from the pack as his main challenger, even if they’re unwilling to attack him directly.
This unprecedented clash between the electoral and legal systems may not be the full extent of the political maelstrom that rages as November 2024 approaches. House Republicans are moving ever closer to an impeachment inquiry against Biden, ostensibly seeking to establish links between his conduct as vice president and the business activities, including in Ukraine and China, of his son Hunter. So far, Republicans have failed to produce conclusive evidence that Joe Biden was directly involved, corrupt or profited from any deals.
But any impeachment inquiry would also clearly be rooted in an effort by Republicans to blur the significance of Trump’s two impeachments and to create an impression that corruption is endemic in Washington politics.
And a fledgling movement started by some conservative legal scholars could see some liberal states seek to bar Trump from the ballot by making a constitutional argument. The 14th Amendment prohibits people serving in federal office who previously took an oath to protect the Constitution but who engaged in “insurrection or rebellion” against it. Any attempt to stop Trump from standing for election in some states would almost certainly end up before the conservative majority of the Supreme Court. And even if it is legally justified, such an effort could create a political storm that could backfire and play into Trump’s campaign theme that he is being persecuted by Democrats trying to keep him out of the White House.
One of the ironies of what is shaping up as the most unusual election of modern times is that Trump’s primary rivals are running conventional campaigns. And they are all struggling with the same conundrum – how do they defeat a front-runner whose support has appeared only to solidify following his quadruple indictments?
- Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is running as a classic Republican national security conservative – warning against the anti-Ukraine sentiment that’s sweeping much of her party. She’s calling for a new generation of leadership – an oblique, if so far ineffective, way of noting Trump’s general election vulnerabilities and highlighting traditional fiscal issues like the ballooning national debt.
- Former Vice President Mike Pence, while trying to claim credit for the successes of the Trump administration, is also seeking to reorient the party toward ideological social conservatism, especially on issues like opposition to abortion.
- DeSantis has campaigned to the right of Trump on many issues – including against “woke” policies in education and business – and is promising a more organized and effective implementation of Trumpism.
- South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who often appears to be angling for the vice presidency, offers a patriotic and optimistic twist on his hard-core conservatism.
- Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson both lash out at Trump’s excesses and his legal imbroglio but have been confined to the single digits in most primary polls.
All of this has failed to vault any of these contenders into the top tier with Trump, or to woo significant numbers of the front-runner’s supporters away from his authoritarian populism. Many of the candidates in the second tier appear to be running for the nomination of a Republican Party that may not even exist anymore. The latest CNN Poll of Polls of the GOP primary race shows Trump averaging 58% support, ahead of DeSantis at 16%, Ramaswamy at 7%, Pence and Haley each at 4%, and Christie and Scott each at 3%.
Given these numbers, why would Trump drop his boycott and attend the second GOP presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan library in California later this month? His absence would only further perpetuate the reality of two separate GOP primaries.
A candidate of the future?
The buzz and coverage that Ramaswamy, who has never held elected office, has conjured since he was center stage at the first Republican debate in Wisconsin last month suggests that he may have understood the dynamics of what a post-Trump Republican Party might look like better than his more experienced rivals.
His proposals are radical and even fantastical – for instance, claiming that he could negotiate a wedge between Russia and China or that, unlike Pence, if he were vice president on January 6, he would have forced a new national consensus to transform the election system into single-day voting with the use of paper ballots. Ramaswamy’s plan to essentially gut US government bureaucracy would likely cause severe economic disruption and political chaos. But his rhetoric acknowledges the reality that contempt for government elites and foreign policy experts – or even facts and logic – is what sells in the Trump-era GOP. Since he’s pitching for the same pool of voters that the ex-president has locked up, the 38-year-old isn’t likely to win the nomination. But he might pave the way to a future in the GOP.
Some analysts caution that it is still early in the primary campaign and that many voters don’t start tuning in until late in the year. And if some candidates don’t break out soon, they may see fundraising dwindle in a way that could thin the field and consolidate opposition to Trump. Still, as the calendar turns to fall, the first balloting in January comes into closer focus. And there is no sign that any of Trump’s major opponents have come any closer to challenging one of the sources of his strength among his most faithful supporters – the lie that he won in 2020 and that prosecutions of his abuses of power are politically motivated.
But New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who passed on his own 2024 Republican bid, dismisses national polls and argues that the state-by-state tradition of American elections could still trip Trump up and eventually reduce the field to a single strong rival who could beat him.
“You have to let the process play out. And I think the key is winnowing down that field,” Sununu said on NBC News’ “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “We had 13 candidates a month ago. We have eight or nine today. I think we’ll have five or six by the time Iowa comes, maybe three or four by New Hampshire. And then, when it’s one-on-one, Trump’s in trouble. And he knows that.”
Former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who now co-chairs the “No Labels” group that is considering putting up a third-party candidate next year, warned that Republican candidates with no chance of winning need to get out now.
“If you’re in there running for vice president, or you’re trying to be a Cabinet secretary, or you’re trying to become famous, or write a book, or get on television, you should get the heck out of the race,” Hogan said on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “We need to narrow it down to find a leader who can get the Republican Party back on the right track and that could get us back to winning elections again,” Hogan said.
“And it’s not going to happen with 11 people in the race.”