As 2024 GOP Field Grows, Senators (Mostly) Sit It Out

This week, three more current or former governors are joining the presidential fray while just one senator has declared: Tim Scott of South Carolina.

By the end of this week, the dozen or so GOP presidential contenders will include everything a window-shopping conservative might want: a literal former president, someone with no electoral experience, veterans, millionaire businessmen, people who want to be like Donald Trump, people who don’t want to be like Trump, and candidates who still pledge fealty to Ronald Reagan and those who think the GOP should be done with all that.

What they don’t have a choice of: senators.

Only one senator, Tim Scott of South Carolina, has entered the 2024 GOP presidential field eight years after senators defined the non-Trump presidential field, with Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina standing out as major candidates. None of them appears interested in giving it another go.

Other GOP senators who have been talked about as potential candidates are also staying on the sidelines this year, including Josh Hawley of Missouri and Rick Scott of Florida. Both men love to make headlines yet are instead focusing on their Senate reelection bids.

“It always comes down to individual choice. I know I’m running for the Senate,” Rick Scott, who launched a failed attempt to oust Mitch McConnell as the GOP leader in the Senate, said when asked if he regretted not getting into the race.

The senatorial sidelining is a reversal from recent years. Though governors dominated the presidential scene from the 1970s until 2008, the election of U.S. Sen. Barack Obama to the White House began an era when big names built on the federal level dominated presidential politics, and governors struggled to get the attention and money necessary to mount serious bids. In 2020, not a single governor ended up as a serious contender for the Democratic nomination.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), a presidential candidate, greets an audience member Saturday at Sen. Joni Ernst's Roast and Ride, an informal campaign kickoff event, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), a presidential candidate, greets an audience member Saturday at Sen. Joni Ernst's Roast and Ride, an informal campaign kickoff event, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

The sprint among governors to join the race only highlights the lack of senators: This week, three current or former governors ― former Vice President Mike Pence of Indiana, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie ― will join former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson in vying to lead their party in the 2024 general election. The free-for-all contest is a completely different race from just a few months ago, when Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis seemed poised for a head-to-head clash.

“Usually crowds grow when people see weakness,” Graham, who has endorsed Trump, said of the expanding field. “Like, some people running just to position themselves as something else. It seems to be nobody’s being deterred from getting in.”

Asked why more senators aren’t getting in, Graham quipped: “The Senate’s a better job.” (Graham himself ran for president in 2016, ending his campaign before the Iowa caucuses.)

DeSantis’ stock has fallen since he first began flirting with a run for president. The Florida governor, who once ran even with or at times ahead of Trump in early state polls, has fallen behind under a barrage of attacks from Trump. He’s now trying to catch up on the campaign trail by taking veiled jabs at the former president, his leadership style and his ability to win.

Republican senators don’t have a unified theory as to why so many members of the upper chamber are opting out of the 2024 GOP race this year. Some posited that governors are simply better suited for the job of president and that they benefit on the campaign trail from being able to point to tangible accomplishments.

“I remember George W. Bush saying to me, he said, ‘The best job in America is being a governor.’ And then he said, ‘Oh, almost the best job in America,’” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the 2012 GOP presidential nominee and former governor of Massachusetts. “So I think governors naturally look for the next office.”

Other senators suggested that Trump and his popularity within the GOP are keeping potential contenders from joining the fray.

“Everybody else who wants to be president has already tried, and it was hardly worth it,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). “I think the fact that Donald Trump is in the race has kept a lot of people out, including some of those senator-president wannabes.”

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) agreed with that assessment, suggesting with a heavy dose of sarcasm that more senators aren’t running for president because “this job is so damn good.”

“You get to do world-changing things like keep paying the bills,” he added, referring to the months-long fight over raising the debt limit.

Meanwhile, Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said it is because there are “a lot of members of the Senate who have decided that Tim Scott would be a good choice” for president. Rounds, a former governor himself, is one of only two GOP senators who have endorsed Scott’s 2024 bid.

Scott, who is running an explicitly optimistic campaign aimed at separating himself from the apocalyptic rhetoric deployed by Trump and DeSantis, is the type of old-school conservative Senate Republicans, who are slightly less enamored of the “Make America Great Again” movement than their House counterparts, could, in theory, line up behind. But his still slim odds of victory mean many will keep their rooting interest private rather than explicit.

Another reason may be that the president-wannabes in the Senate may simply be biding their time for a better opportunity. Hawley and Arkansas’ Tom Cotton, another senator many thought could run in 2024, are downright kids by presidential standards: Hawley is 43 and Cotton is 46.

“Do you want to be someone who ran twice and lost twice? Some of them are young enough to be thinking about future cycles,” said Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University.

One person who isn’t running for president? New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu. After launching many criticisms of Trump over the past few years, Sununu made his decision final on Monday. The moderate GOP governor warned that a crowded field would only help Trump win the nomination again.

“The stakes are too high for a crowded field to hand the nomination to a candidate who earns just 35 percent of the vote, and I will help to ensure this does not happen,” Sununu wrote in an opinion article published by The Washington Post.

Sununu also included a dig at unnamed candidates who are running. “Too many other candidates who have entered this race are simply running to be Trump’s vice president,” he said.

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