WASHINGTON — There’s an old joke that senators look in the mirror and see a president. These days, a whole lot of mirrors in the chamber seem to be broken.
Republicans have an open presidential primary in 2024, and the Senate is packed with hyper-ambitious and self-confident politicians, many with national followings and barely concealed presidential aspirations. Yet nearly all of them are taking a pass at a White House bid next year after former President Donald Trump launched his attempted comeback campaign in November.
“This cycle is shaping up to be very different from every cycle since 2000, where it seemed half the Senate was campaigning for president,” said Alex Conant, who worked for Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida in his Senate office and then his 2016 presidential campaign.
That year, the GOP field was so crowded with senators — Rubio, Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — that Conant recalled a candidate forum in New Hampshire where a crop of candidates took part from a Capitol Hill studio. None of them have expressed interest in running this cycle.
Now, a newer group of Republican senators rumored to have higher aspirations — Rick Scott of Florida, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Joni Ernst of Iowa — are also bowing out or sitting on the sidelines.
“Every senator has a different reason,” Conant said. “A lot of them are young and have the luxury to wait. In 2024, you’re running against an incumbent president and a former president, so historically it’s a big hill to climb. This isn’t like 2016 when there was an open White House and wide-open GOP race.”
Cruz, Hawley and Rick Scott, whose seats are up in 2024, have chosen to seek re-election rather than roll the dice on a White House run.
“I’ve never said I was going to run for president,” said Hawley, 43, who has been steadily raising his national profile with foreign policy speeches and headline-grabbing legislation. “I have not visited Iowa or any of those places. So I hope to run for re-election” in the Senate, he said.
Rick Scott said simply, “I’m running for the Senate.” When asked if that means he’s definitely not running for another office in 2024, he replied, “Right.”
One exception to the Senate trend is Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who is inching toward a 2024 presidential run but hasn’t announced a final decision yet.
Cruz, the runner-up to Trump in the 2016 contest, crisscrossed the country during the 2022 midterm election cycle, stumping for fellow Republicans and building up chits. But in recent weeks, he has made clear he plans to run for another term in the Senate and help his party win back control of the chamber.
“It’ll be an interesting year. I suspect it’s going to be a wild and wooly race,” Cruz, 52, said when asked about former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley jumping into the race. “I look forward to supporting the Republican nominee.”
Back in 2016, Cruz, Paul and Rubio were freshman senators. Today all three have fancier titles as the ranking members on important committees — Cruz on the Commerce Committee, Paul on the Homeland Security Committee and Rubio on the Intelligence Committee. Graham, who won a fourth term in 2020, is the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.
And the sting of getting clobbered by Trump that year lingers. Despite losing re-election in 2020 and stirring up the mob that attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, Trump retains a passionate following on the right, leads the field in most GOP polls and is racking up endorsements in Congress.
“President Trump is the undisputed leader of the Republican Party and uniquely positioned to defeat Joe Biden, so it only makes sense that so many Senators are backing his campaign rather than running themselves,” Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller said. “We expect the impressive list of senators endorsing President Trump to grow in the coming weeks and we’re thankful for their support.”
On the Democratic side, senators are also taking a pass on 2024. Just four years ago, seven sitting senators ran for president. All of them lost to a former senator and one of them became his vice president. With President Joe Biden all but certain to run again, his former Senate rivals are backing his re-election.
Republican elites who want a viable alternative to Trump have largely looked outside Washington to his protégé, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who many believe will run for president.
Other big names with access to deep-pocketed donors, like former Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, also appear to be gearing up for a launch.
“Everybody has to have a lane. In the primary, if you can’t find your lane, then you can’t find your path to get there. Because everybody’s got to separate themselves but also get a bloc of voters,” said freshman Sen. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., who has endorsed Trump.
“His voters are his voters — they are going to stay there. They are not gonna move," Mullin said. "So I just don’t see where anybody else’s path to get there is.”
Not everyone subscribes to that view. In Iowa on Wednesday, Tim Scott gave a preview of what his potential presidential campaign might look like, making a "Faith in America" listening tour stop at Drake University and delivering a keynote address at the Polk County GOP’s Lincoln Dinner.
Tim Scott, the Senate’s sole Black Republican, outlined what he called Democrats’ “blueprint to ruin America” — out-of-control spending and inflation, open borders, an opioid epidemic, and critical race theory in schools — but he also spoke at length about his family’s inspiring story “from cotton to Congress.”
“I’m here because my family chose faith over anger, responsibility over resentment, and patriotism over pity. My granddaddy taught me I could be bitter or better. Not both. My mom said we could be victims or victors. She chose victorious. I am living proof that our Founding Fathers were geniuses we should celebrate, not cancel,” Tim Scott said at Drake University in Des Moines.
“We are indeed the land of opportunity, not a land of oppression. This is just my American story.”
Like Mullin, Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., has thrown his support behind Trump; he was expected to play golf with the former president at Mar-a-Lago this week. The former Auburn University football coach said the way for the GOP to develop a deep bench of leaders is for younger candidates to run and gain experience.
“It’s called perseverance. Before I became a head coach, I kept interviewing and interviewing, finally worked my way in. That’s how you do it — just jumping in there,” Tuberville said.
But he added that it’d be “a grind” for some of his Senate colleagues to run this cycle and be away from their young families, especially with Trump, and possibly DeSantis, dominating the field.
One senator who knows something about the demands of a presidential campaign is Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who ran for the White House in 2008 and became the GOP nominee in 2012.
“It is enormously energy consuming, financially consuming, but it’s a great thrill. You come away more optimistic about the country because you meet people who are not making the news but the people who are making lives and driving our economy,” Romney said in an interview. “If you get the chance to run for president, make sure you do it.”
Asked if he had any plans to run for president a third time, Romney replied with a one-word answer: “Nope.”