The GOP’s choice in 2024

Trump Ultra, Trump Lite or Trump Zero

The former president’s grip on the party base is so total that top Republicans say the path to the nomination is best defined by the degree of loyalty to him

Trump, the keynote speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference, is the party's undisputed leader at the moment, and for the foreseeable future

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POLITICS PRESS GROUP

At least eight 2024 hopefuls will speak at CPAC, the conservative movement’s premier conference this weekend in Florida, giving Republicans their clearest look yet at who’s competing in the traditional GOP presidential lanes. But there’s only one lane that really matters: the one currently occupied by former President Donald Trump.

Trump, the keynote speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference, is the party's undisputed leader at the moment, and for the foreseeable future. And whether he chooses to run again in 2024 or not, his outsized presence is likely to determine the shape of the primary.

“There isn’t a Trump lane. There’s a Trump Turnpike with multiple lanes and multiple people,” said Chris LaCivita, a veteran GOP strategist who most recently headed the anti-Biden super PAC Preserve America.

Conversations with more than a dozen Republican consultants, strategists and officials depict a party over which Trump exerts an irresistible gravitational pull, pointing to his continued strength in polls and the megawatt energy he generates among the GOP grassroots.

Trump’s grip on the Republican base and his effect on the minds of White House hopefuls is so total, they say, that the path to the GOP nomination is best defined by the degree of loyalty to Trump — to the point where party operatives reach for elaborate metaphors to best convey the extent of his influence.

“Trump remains the 800-pound gorilla in the room, he just happens to be sitting in the corner right now,” former Michigan state chair Saul Anuzis said, joking that the social media de-platforming of the former president is “more like an electronic dog fence. … You can definitely still hear the bark.”

Already, potential prospects and party leaders are making pilgrimages to Trump’s Palm Beach club for an audience with the former president. It’s a reflection, top Republicans say, of a nomination contest that will break down along fault lines that trace back to Trump.

“The winner of our primary [in 2024] will be someone from the Full Trump lane who embraces Trump and is embraced by him,” said Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, a confidant of the former president who met with him last week at Mar-a-Lago and has taken on the role of party enforcer.

Gaetz, who’s also scheduled to speak at CPAC, said few will challenge Trump if he decides to run again. And he predicted that candidates who fail to embrace Trump’s legacy in full will only have a “mirage” of support “because their base is essentially Washington-based media who give them more appearances on the Sunday shows than their percentage point support in polling of Republican voters.”

On the eve of CPAC, here is a breakdown of the 2024 GOP presidential lanes that are taking shape.

Trump Ultra

There’s a saying by some in Trump’s orbit that “if you’re with him 99 percent of the time, you’re a damn traitor” — a testament to the absolute, unwavering loyalty he demands. Those purity and loyalty tests make the Trump Ultra lane one of the toughest to run in.

A key metric for senators and representatives who expect to occupy this lane: opposition to the Jan. 6 certification of the Electoral College results that officially made him the loser and that led to the storming of the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob. That puts Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley and Florida Sen. Rick Scott — all CPAC speakers — squarely in the Trump Ultra camp.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose stock is rising rapidly in the national party, will open the conference with welcoming remarks. He sports sterling MAGA credential for his Trumpist handling of Covid and status as governor of Trump’s newly adopted home state — which the former president won twice. To this day, DeSantis refuses to publicly acknowledge that President Joe Biden was legitimately elected.

DeSantis isn’t the only governor in this category: South Dakota’s Kristi Noem, another CPAC speaker, is a dark horse candidate. Noem, who is holding a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago on March 5, is a Fox News regular who once gave Trump a miniature Mt. Rushmore featuring his own face.

Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state known within the previous administration for his unwillingness to criticize Trump even in private, is also in this crowded group and is scheduled to speak at CPAC.

Trump Lite

The Trump Lite lane is populated by candidates who have put any daylight — however little — between themselves and the former president.

In the case of former Vice President Mike Pence, who was unceasingly loyal to Trump for more than four years, it was his refusal to reject the Electoral College certification when he presided over the vote. That apostasy costs him among many Trump supporters. He declined an invitation to speak at CPAC.

Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, a leading voice in criticizing China — one of Trump’s signature issues — is in the same situation after voting to accept the Electoral College results. So is Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Although Rubio carved out a niche for himself as a consistent anti-anti-Trump Republican who frequently attacks the former president’s critics, he committed the sin of mildly criticizing Trump after his two impeachments and blasted him as a primary rival in 2016. Both are scheduled to speak at CPAC.

Trump’s former United Nations ambassador, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, recently stepped out of the full Trump lane by making critical comments about her onetime boss and was promptly snubbed by the former president when she requested an audience with him at Mar-a-Lago.

In an interview prior to Haley’s criticisms of Trump, South Carolina GOP strategist Wesley Donehue predicted she would win her home state but noted that support of the former president is of utmost importance, according to a poll of Republican primary voters he took in the state in early February.

“About 75 percent of Republican primary voters said supporting Donald Trump is a requirement for office. Again: a requirement. It’s absolutely astonishing,” Donehue said. “So she was seen in this state as being 100 percent with Donald Trump, but now over the last two weeks, we're starting to hear a lot of rumblings. People still love Nikki Haley here, but she's got to figure out a way to deal with this. I don’t know how she does, though. Because Donald Trump doesn’t seem to be someone with a short memory.”

Haley’s standing in her home state’s primary looms large because the lanes the candidates will run in have both an ideological and geographical dimension. Since South Carolina is traditionally the third state to vote in a primary — and the first to go in the South — it exerts an extra gravitational pull.

In New Hampshire, sandwiched between the Iowa and South Carolina contests, Republican strategist Jim Merrill said that Trump Lite could be “potentially the broadest lane ... a hybrid that is able to point out Trump's shortcomings while also working to build on his gains with working class Americans.”

Trump Zero

Jeff Roe, who advised Cruz on his 2016 presidential bid, has polled Republican primary voters extensively in recent years on what type of candidate they would support. He’s determined that the party has three distinctive lanes: a Full Trump lane, a Most Conservative lane (composed of fiscal and social conservatives) and a Most Electable lane that reflects a preference for whomever can beat the Democrats.

“If you don’t pick a lane, you will get run over,” Roe said. “Candidates who try to hold a mirror up to the electorate and say, ‘Look at me, I’m just like you,’ instead of saying, ‘This is who I am, vote for me,’ will lose. Voters want authenticity. They want leaders.”

That focus on electability is at the heart of the Trump Zero lane. It is essentially the vehicle of the anti-Trump wing, the province of those who have called out the president frequently for his rhetoric and post-election behavior, yet can single out some positive aspects of Trump’s four-year reign.

The problem is the lane might be so small that it’s not much of a path at all, said David Kochel, a longtime GOP strategist from first-in-the-nation Iowa who counts Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse among this group.

“It’s probably not even a lane,” Kochel said. “It’s more like a gravelly shoulder on the side of the mountain that’s about to crumble into the ocean.”

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