President Donald Trump is boxing his own shadow as he seeks the Republican presidential nomination — and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.
There’s little incentive for rivals to join him in the ring, according to advisers to potential candidates and other Republican strategists.
From the front row, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is collecting support from prominent donors and beating Trump in some polls of key states. If he runs, that announcement isn’t expected to come until summer at the earliest — probably after Florida’s legislative session ends in June — which will give him time to gauge his own chances.
“He’s not in a hurry because he doesn’t have to be. And he has a day job: governor,” said one top Florida Republican who was in regular contact with DeSantis throughout his 2022 re-election campaign and spoke anonymously to relay how he believes DeSantis is thinking.
Dan Eberhart, a Republican fundraiser who once backed Trump but now wants DeSantis to be the party’s nominee in 2024, said there's time.
“If Trump is going to be in, I would like for him not to be the only national Republican candidate out there,” Eberhart said. “But DeSantis isn’t going to get in until after the Florida legislative session ends, at least. Anyone that gets in now runs the risk of peaking too early.”
The two-part early conclusion drawn by many GOP insiders is that the only way to beat Trump is by unifying around a single alternative and that DeSantis is the best of the rest.
That’s why the timing calculations are a bit more complicated for the lower-polling candidates, who also have to worry that the race quickly becomes a clash of titans between Trump and DeSantis with little available space for also-rans. The questions of whether and when to jump in are inexorably linked, as windows of opportunity can open and close at a moment’s notice.
Field quickly narrowing to Trump vs. DeSantis
Trump’s early announcement for president — which he almost made before the midterm elections last week — followed nearly two years of planning, fundraising and speeches. His interest in announcing a presidential bid intensified last year when President Joe Biden’s approval ratings dropped amid the souring economy and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Aides say his desire to run became even more earnest as he increasingly saw DeSantis as a threat and, then, as the Department of Justice opened two separate criminal investigations into him over his role in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol and his possession and storage of sensitive documents that the federal government says he improperly handled in his post-presidency.
But others aren’t feeling Trump’s urgency.
Since Trump’s Tuesday speech, there have been more signs of movement in the invisible primary — the behind-the-scenes battle to line up donors, endorsers and top staff — than a rush to launch.
“People are either waiting or scrambling to get as close to DeSantis’ inner circle as possible — or they’re with Trump,” Eberhart said of the donor class.
In the world of GOP elites, the field is quickly narrowing to Trump and DeSantis, and the Florida Republican source said there is something unique about their rivalry.
“The fact is Ron is different from any other Republican who might run against Trump,” the Republican said. “Ron is in Trump’s head. The other guys aren’t. Ron made a red wave in the state when it didn’t materialize really anywhere else. He won by a historic margin. And billionaires are basically begging him to run.”
In addition to the celebrity from his big re-election win of nearly 20 points, DeSantis has an edge over some of the other possible non-Trump candidates: money. His political and campaign committees had at least $64 million in the bank, according to the most recent campaign finance data.
DeSantis continued to fundraise after the election but has no immediately known plans to convert the state political committee into a federal super PAC that could support his federal candidacy.
Florida also has a so-called resign to run law that would require DeSantis, if he qualifies to run for president, to resign as governor after the 2024 election — whether or not he wins the presidency. Legislative allies are expected to change the law during the spring lawmaking session but they’re “waiting on smoke signals from the Plaza Level,” said a knowledgeable legislative source referring to the Tallahassee shorthand for the location of the governor’s office on the first floor of the state Capitol.
Challenges for the rest of the field
One reason for the other hopefuls to wait outside the ring is the hope that Trump and DeSantis bloody each other badly enough to turn the title fight into a battle royal.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, who needs no introduction to voters, is on a book tour. In fact, his book came out on the same day as Trump’s big announcement. He didn’t watch Trump’s launch speech Tuesday, according to an aide, and has said he could wait until the spring to announce whether he will run.
Like DeSantis, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin is expected to keep his focus on state matters, possibly until Virginia’s legislative session ends in February.
But Youngkin maintained a robust schedule on behalf of Republican candidates in the midterms, earning chits in key states, and he has a growing list of prominent GOP donors ready to back him should he join the race.
Trump appears to have noticed, targeting the governor with a racist, somewhat confusing, attack on his social media platform.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, long viewed as having eyes on the presidency, made critical remarks of Trump on Wednesday in The New York Times. But in a "War Room" podcast interview on Thursday with former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, she walked back the remarks and issued a mild criticism of DeSantis for briefly locking down Florida during spring break when the Covid pandemic first hit in 2020.
The better known a potential candidate is, the longer he or she can afford to wait. It takes more time and money for more obscure hopefuls to become familiar to voters. The GOP primary electorate is familiar with Trump and Pence from their time in the White House, and, to a lesser extent, DeSantis and even Youngkin a bit from their recent high-profile gubernatorial wins.
The Pence aide says there’s no concern in his camp that anti-Trump donors will all flock to DeSantis.
“I think that the donor base is so large that that is not a threat; I don’t think there could be that level of consolidation,” the Pence aide said, pointing to loyalty among the former vice president’s contributors that transcends pure political calculation. “There are elements of the donor base that I think he appeals to because of his faith and his devotion in that faith that other candidates don’t really appeal to.”
But would-be candidates who haven’t been in the political arena as recently — former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie among them — may have to make their decisions a little more quickly. Few are tipping their hands now.
“The secretary hasn’t made a final decision about whether or not he will run,” a person close to Pompeo said. “But that decision will be based on if he thinks it is the best place for him to serve and if the timing is correct.”
Christie is clearly eager to hammer Trump, but it’s not clear whether that will be as a candidate or perhaps as a commentator on television. He is “open to” a run, said longtime adviser Mike DuHaime, who added that Christie will not jump in “unless he sees a path” to the nomination. Either way, DuHaime said, Trump’s entry has no effect on Christie’s thinking and no decision is imminent.
The view from Mar-a-Lago
Trump’s team has long held the position that he’s expecting other Republicans to run against him and that, if a critical number of primary challengers line up, it would make his candidacy even more formidable.
“We have at least 30% of the Republican primary electorate that will do anything to support the [former] president. And the value of their votes becomes proportionately higher if a bunch of others pile in the race and dilute the not-Trump vote and divide it up between them,” said one Trump strategist who spoke anonymously to share the campaign’s thinking.
In the days since Trump’s launch, his campaign has released a string of endorsements from lawmakers. But the number is much lower than the set that he endorsed in the recent midterm elections, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., dodged this week when he was asked whether he backs Trump for president.
Steven Cheung, the communications director for Trump’s campaign, said that the former president believes “America is in decline due to the weak leadership of Joe Biden,” adding that “there are others who will be bound to the political establishment, be beholden to corporations and drag the United States into more unnecessary wars.”
Brad Todd, a veteran Republican strategist, said it makes more sense for hopefuls to take their time for a variety of logistical reasons, including federal fundraising limits that are imposed once a candidacy becomes official. But more than that, he said, Republican voters are exhausted.
“Campaigns have gotten bigger and rougher and louder, and I think voters reach a capacity when they need a break,” Todd said. “My advice for anyone running for anything in 2024 right now would be let the voters have their holiday.”
One GOP strategist who worked for Trump in the past said that DeSantis would be smart to stay out and let the former president see how much his own support has dissipated even without a big rival in the race.
“If he’s not in, it will just drive Trump crazy,” the strategist said. “You’re going to have all these donors, all these folks waiting for DeSantis and that’s going to be their answer [when Trump asks for help]. And that’s just going to twist the knife.”