A weakened Trump tries again. Can a challenger take him down in 2024?

Photo for The Washington Post by Thomas Simonetti
Former president Donald Trump announces his bid for president at his Mar-a-Lago Club on Tuesday in Palm Beach, Fla.

WASHINGTON – Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president on Tuesday. No one should underestimate the former president’s potential to become the Republican nominee again or to win the general election in 2024. Nor should anyone overestimate his strength. Trump begins his third campaign for president weakened and embattled.

Few Americans are ready for the 2024 presidential campaign to begin. Congressional Republicans, now that they narrowly control the House, will be in the forefront of trying to define the party’s future. It will be a messy process, as legislators rarely speak with one voice. One important question will be the degree to which the House majority signals anything different from what Trump has offered, whether denials of election results, policies or grievances and attacks.

Trump is still the dominant figure in the party, but his lackluster announcement speech last Tuesday night could not disguise his diminished standing. His record as a party leader falls far short of his musings about what kind of president he was. That record of two disappointing midterms and a losing reelection bid is why many Republicans are looking to others to lead them – and first on that list is Ron DeSantis, coming off his commanding reelection as Florida governor.

Trump has been a drag on his party ever since he entered the White House. Yes, he won the electoral college in 2016, but he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. He lost the popular vote by an even bigger margin to Joe Biden in 2020.

On the legislative side, under Trump’s leadership, Republicans lost control of the House in 2018 and the Senate in 2020. And while the GOP regained the House in this year’s election, the party fell well short of expectations, and Democrats will retain control of the Senate.

Republicans also lost a slew of statewide races for positions that could determine the 2024 electoral college outcome. This was in large part due to failures by candidates Trump promoted and because of voters’ fears of giving too much power to a party under his domination.

Trump’s reelection announcement prompted Attorney General Merrick Garland to announce Friday the appointment of a special counsel to take over ongoing Justice Department investigations into Trump’s retention of classified documents after leaving the White House and his role in fomenting the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. Those investigation will remind some Republicans of the baggage the former president carries. Others will see him as the victim he claims to be and they could come out in force to back his third presidential bid.

There are no perfect analogies in presidential campaigns, especially nomination contests. Different personalities, different conditions, different electorates combine to make each one unique. But at this very early stage, there are some past contests that offer perspective on what could await Trump and his party.

Presidential candidates don’t always have the luxury of deciding when it’s ideal to run. Circumstances often dictate that. When Barack Obama was deciding in late 2006 whether to run for president in 2008, David Axelrod, his chief strategist, sent him a memo that said: “History is replete with potential candidates for the presidency who waited too long rather than examples of people who ran too soon . . . You will never be hotter than you are right now.” Obama gave himself about a 25 percent chance of winning the nomination. Still he ran.

In the fall of 1998, as George W. Bush was heading toward reelection as governor of Texas and then to an expected campaign for president in 2000. Nonetheless, he expressed surprise at the strength of the forces pushing him to make the race. “I feel like a cork in a raging river,” he said.

Both Obama and Bush won those elections and went on to serve two terms.

DeSantis finds himself in the position of Obama going into the 2008 cycle, likely never to be in a better position to run for president, even if the odds today don’t necessarily favor him winning the nomination, and even if the time is not ideal given that he has young children and that his wife, Casey, has recently come through a battle with breast cancer.

DeSantis is not in the position that Bush was in after winning his reelection in 1998. Bush, a son of a former president, was the acknowledged front-runner for his party’s nomination. DeSantis is the alternative to Trump that many in his party are seeking, but someone who nevertheless would have to defeat a former president known for his skill and ruthlessness in taking down potential rivals.

Do not look for DeSantis to move quickly or to engage with Trump, who is likely to continue to try to bait him. He can wait to make a decision or announce his intentions. Like Bush was then, he is a sitting governor with an upcoming legislative session. He has real work to do while Trump goes around and plays his greatest hits at rallies, a strategy that could grow stale. DeSantis can build a record of contrast with Trump.

In the spring of 1999, Bush stayed in Austin and let the world come to him. Republicans kept arriving daily – elected officials, donors, strategists and policy experts. As other candidates trooped to Iowa, a group of Iowa Republicans chartered two planes to Austin. Bush used the time to consolidated support among fellow governors and other elected officials, build a financial network and immerse himself in briefings.

DeSantis could run a similar front porch campaign from Tallahassee in the coming months, as his team prepares for a possible candidacy. The governor said last week that people should “chill out” about 2024. In his reelection campaign, he declined to say he would serve out his four-year term.

DeSantis has a team in place. He has proven his ability to raise plenty of money and a pile of money that could be transferred to a super PAC to support a candidacy. His record as governor – often described as a combination of traditional conservatism with a heavy dose of culture wars – already gives Republican voters something to look at.

He gained national attention by resisting covid lockdowns. He took on the Walt Disney Company over the teaching of gender identity issues to young schoolchildren. He brags that Florida is “where woke goes to die.” He dealt swiftly with Hurricane Ian, earning plaudits at home. Democrats and Republican see him as Trumpism without Trump. Democrats see it and recoil. Many Republicans very much like it.

While there probably will be many GOP presidential contenders in 2024, Trump and DeSantis may suck up all the oxygen in the room, not allowing any of the others to break through.

DeSantis has proven himself to voters in Florida. He has not proven himself nationally in a presidential arena. There are questions about his capacity to make the step up. Does he have the personality and temperament for a long presidential campaign? He is not known having good people skills and has offended some wealthy donors with what they see as a highhanded style. The video he released just before his reelection, which said, “On the eighth day . . ., God made a fighter,” suggests that hubris could be an issue. If he steps in but isn’t able to step up, then Republicans will be looking at something different, and Trump might be the beneficiary.

There are plenty of other Republicans considering presidential candidacies in 2024. Former vice president Mike Pence is out with a new book that seems to be the soft launch of a candidacy. But he is caught between his loyal service to Trump for four years and the break that occurred around the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo is putting down roots in early states.

There are Trump critics who might run, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie among them. Christie believes that Trump must be confronted directly, not passively, if Republican hope to deny him the nomination, and he won applause with that message at the Republican Governors Association meeting, held the same night Trump announced. Christie said anyone running in 2024 owes it to voters to say exactly what they think of the role Trump has played in the past few years. “I don’t think that subtlety works,” he said. “You have to be direct.”

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who has described Trump as “[expletive] crazy,” said last week he might be interested. So are others, including two prominent women in the party, South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who served as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations.

The governor not named DeSantis that some other Republicans believe could be well positioned is Virginia’s Glenn Youngkin, whose 2021 victory put him into the spotlight as someone who managed to keep Trump at bay without offending Trump’s supporters. He also tapped into parental dissatisfaction with school policies, though his critics said he also played the race card in doing so.

Youngkin has spent the past few months campaigning for gubernatorial candidates around the country, though he showed more losses than wins in those efforts. He handed out his signature red vests and hoped to show that he can appeal to Trump loyalists, Never Trumpers and the swing voters who helped him win in 2021 but who failed to strongly back Republicans this year. Republicans say his style, less sharp-edged than DeSantis’s, could go down more easily in the retail campaigning demanded in the early states.

Some Republicans wonder if there is room for both Youngkin and DeSantis to challenge Trump. Those who seek a Trump alternative worry about the consequences of another large and fractured field. His loyal base could produce enough votes in early primaries to put him in command of the race for the GOP ticket, just as they did in 2016.

The Republican presidential campaign will begin to take shape partly in the shadow of what House Republicans do. They can help the party’s image or harm it. The presidential candidates will have to take it from there. Trump is the known factor, his potential rivals far less so. Whether any are up to the task for moving him aside is the great question for a party still trapped in Trump’s grip.

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, Jen Kiggans, Republican candidate for Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., and former House speaker Newt Gingrich speak during a rally at Ballyhoos restaurant on Nov. 7 in Virginia Beach, one day before the midterm elections.
Many expect Youngkin to be a contender for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.