WASHINGTON ― As Donald Trump officially joins the ranks of the biggest losers in presidential history, he can likely count on continued public praise from at least one group: Republicans eager to run for the job in 2024, potentially re-creating the same conditions that led to his 2016 primary victory.
Unlike previous one-term presidents rejected by voters, Trump still maintains a death grip on many elected Republicans, who appear fearful of crossing him and angering his loyal fan base. To complicate matters further, Trump has publicly broached the idea of running himself in four years.
“It’s virtually impossible for anyone to gain any real footing as long as Trump continues to pretend that he’s going to run again,” said one Republican consultant who spoke on condition of anonymity, who added that the would-be field is well aware of Trump’s vindictiveness.
That fear mystifies Trump’s GOP critics, who wonder what it will take for the rest of the party to move past him.
“This is the irrefutable truth: This was not a close election. Donald Trump is in the weakest position a politician could be in. He is a lame duck who lost big,” said Jennifer Horn, who once chaired the state party in New Hampshire.
Given the enormous advantages of incumbency, most presidents who have sought a second term have won it, and Trump last month became just the fourth incumbent to lose reelection in a century. Republican Herbert Hoover lost in 1932 to Franklin Roosevelt. Democrat Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980, and Republican George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton in 1992. Only Hoover tried to run again, but he failed to win the nomination in 1936. Carter and Bush were treated by many within their own parties as pariahs for having lost.
“Why are you afraid of him?” Horn said. “What is it exactly about this roundly defeated crazy person that is scaring you off?”
That his would-be GOP successors are afraid of him or, more precisely, afraid of his hard-core base of supporters, has been evident since the Nov. 3 election. The potential 2024 candidates ― from GOP senators including Missouri’s Josh Hawley and Arkansas’s Tom Cotton to former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley ― avoided congratulating Democratic nominee Joe Biden on his victory. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who ran against Trump in 2016 amid a crowded Republican presidential primary field and called him “utterly amoral” and a “pathological liar,” even volunteered to argue a case before the Supreme Court that would have disenfranchised millions of voters in order to throw the election to Trump.
The high court refused to take the case last week.
“Are we going to be a party that can’t win a national election? Or are we willing to do the hard work of building a durable coalition that can shape our nation’s destiny?”
“The last four years, the likely 2024 Republican hopefuls have been mighty quiet when it comes to criticizing the president. One has to wonder if they miraculously have a change of heart when it appears he may upend their political aspirations,” said Terry Sullivan, who in 2016 ran Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign. “If [Trump] decides he wants to run again, it’s going to take someone willing to go toe to toe with him and put him on the defensive if they want to have any chance of stopping him. We’ve seen it done effectively at times. But whoever does it has to stick with it.”
Yet so far, other potential candidates have largely praised Trump in hopes of winning over his supporters if he falters or winds up not running ― which is the exact strategy that most of the 2016 GOP field employed without success.
“Exact same posture,” Sullivan said. “But for a different reason. Then everyone thought they could beat him in a head-to-head. Now they think he won’t actually run. In some ways, he will help them. They don’t face any real scrutiny or expectations as long as he’s doing his dance.”
One potential 2024 candidate, though, has already broken from the pack of those hoping to inherit Trump’s support: Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who within weeks of the Nov. 3 election posted a video on his “An America United” group’s website arguing that the Republican Party needs to change direction.
“Are we going to be a party that can’t win a national election?” Hogan asks, alluding to the Republicans’ track record now of losing the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections. “Or are we willing to do the hard work of building a durable coalition that can shape our nation’s destiny?”
Hogan does not mention Trump once during the 2 minutes and 35 seconds, but he harks back to Reagan, including a clip of him saying “make America great again” decades before Trump co-opted the slogan. Hogan then repeats a message that the GOP embraced after losing the 2012 election but then abandoned after Trump won the 2016 nomination on a platform of deporting undocumented immigrants and making Mexico build a wall along the southern border. “Here’s a truth that our party needs to hear: No one will listen to our message if they don’t believe that we’re listening to them,” Hogan says in the video.
Another Republican consultant, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said if most of the other 2024 candidates are competing to see who can be most like Trump to win over his supporters, that could leave an opening for an anti-Trump candidate like Hogan to win over a significant plurality of support.
He added that once Trump is gone from the White House and no longer has the ability to dictate the national conversation, his dominance over the field is likely to fade and Republican voters may begin to see his 7-million-vote loss as the terrible showing that it was.
“This year should have been a layup,” he said. “Every single incumbent’s ratings have surged. Except him. He ran an awful campaign and lost.”
The Trump campaign did not respond to HuffPost queries for this story.
Horn said that Trump’s loss gives his Republican would-be successors everything they need to confront Trump, and if they still cannot, they have no business running.
“Anyone in the Republican Party unwilling to stand up to him is too weak and lacks the strength of character to run for president to begin with,” she said. “If Donald Trump’s conspiratorial mutterings scare them, they shouldn’t be on the ballot.”