In 2019, we ran a piece about President Trump’s upcoming reelection and his relationship with Vice President Mike Pence — who we dubbed “the one man in the administration that President Trump cannot fire.” The article centered on whether or not Trump would drop Pence from the ticket, how it might play out, the historical context to keep in mind, and who he might choose in 2020 if Pence got the boot.
It turned out to be wonkish conjecture. Despite some prognosticators‘ bold predictions of Trump switching Pence for former UN Ambassador and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley at the last minute, Trump kept the steady and reliable Mike Pence on the ticket. It was probably a smart decision — the staid Pence performed much better in his debate than his running mate, and as we’ve discussed many times in our Running Mates series, it never projects confidence and stability if you have to drop your own running mate for reelection. It reflects a fault in your own decision making ability, displays disloyalty, and perpetrates a message of chaos in your own administration.1Not to mention all that campaign merch you’ve now got to replace! These traits are somewhat emblematic of the Trump administration, to be sure, so kicking Pence off the ticket would not seem too out of place from the Trump White House tumult we’ve come to expect.
In 2020, Trump assigned Pence to lead the coronavirus task force, distancing the president from the day-to-day fallout of the virus. The pieces were there to shuffle Pence off, blame him for the escalating crisis, and invite some exciting new talent in now that Trump had his pick of the Republican litter in 2020, if he wanted to. Had Trump not inserted himself into daily briefings on the coronavirus, blamed everyone but himself, and downplayed the crisis, it just might have worked. But of course, he did not, and the crisis culminated in the deaths of over 200,000 Americans by Election Day as well as an outbreak in the White House itself, infecting the president and the first family. Trump, with Pence, went on to lose reelection to the Biden-Harris ticket in November, in large part a consequence of the bungled response to the coronavirus and its economic consequences.
Now facing his own political mortality, as he slowly acknowledges he will not be president come January 20, 2021, Trump has ratcheted up hints of a run for the presidency in 2024. “Otherwise, I’ll see you in four years,” he told guests at a White House Christmas Party on December 1. The president has told allies he may run in 2024, potentially even announcing during Biden’s inauguration, and his campaign has emailed supporters asking if they want Trump to run again in 2024. This has some people thinking ahead — if Trump runs again in 2024, does he choose Pence as his running mate again? And if not, who is the alternative? Can Trump even pull off getting the nomination again?
It’s Happened Before… But You Won’t Remember It
Let’s start by looking at the only person to pull off what Trump would be trying to achieve were he to run again in 2024. President Grover Cleveland lost re-election in 1888 to Benjamin Harrison, but would go on to avenge himself in 1892 to reclaim the title. For his second run, Cleveland replaced Thomas A. Hendricks, his 1888 running mate and first vice president, with Adlai Stevenson I, who served as Postmaster General during Cleveland’s first term. Of course, Cleveland didn’t have much of a choice: Hendricks died in his sleep only eight months into his vice presidency (Cleveland served without a vice president for the remainder of his first term and tapped former Ohio senator Allen G. Thurman as his running mate in 1888).
Presidents and their running mates weren’t always expected to mate for life.
Presidents and their running mates weren’t always expected to mate for life. Eight presidents have had at least two vice presidents (Franklin D. Rooselvelt holds the record with three), and while some of these VPs met the same unfortunate fate of Thomas Hendricks, some were shuffled aside for purely political reasons. Of course, seven of those eight presidents (namely Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Licoln, Ulysses S. Grant, William McKinley, and Roosevelt) served in a much different era of party and electoral politics than the one we find ourselves in today. Whereas the perception nowadays is that a presumptive nominee for president picks their running mate and then tells the convention to vote for them, it used to be the other way around. Running mates weren’t decided until the convention itself, when various factions of the party would lobby for a candidate that best reflected their interests — that’s how a free silver advocate like Stevenson wound up running with the goldbug Cleveland, and how a Southern conservative like Garner found himself serving two terms under a Northern liberal like Roosevelt. If building a modern presidential ticket is like speed dating, then the process of yore was more akin to an arranged marriage, with the unions in question dissolved if it suited the party. The influence of the party made itself felt as recently as 1976 when Gerald Ford became the last incumbent president not to run for re-election with his incumbent vice president after deciding he needed to dump the liberal Nelson Rockefeller in favor of the more conservative Bob Dole to win his contested convention against Ronald Reagan.2Ford, for the record, called it “one of the few cowardly things I did in my life.“
If we’re trying to find a historical example that would best guide our assessment of a Trump-Pence reunion, we’d have to look at the eighth and most recent president to have multiple understudies — Richard Nixon. His comeback victory in 1968 after losing in 1960 is probably the closest modern equivalent to what Trump might try to achieve in 2024. In 1960 Nixon chose Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. who, like the oft-rumored Pence replacement Nikki Haley, served as Ambassador to the United Nations. The pick made sense: Nixon was only 47 at the time and represented the younger, more conservative wing of the Republican party while Lodge, who had also represented Massachusetts in the Senate, was nearly 60 and represented the Northern, centrist party establishment.3Lodge had a fascinating career: In addition to serving in the Senate and as Eisenhower’s ambassador to the UN, he would also serve as the Kennedy and later the Johnson administration’s ambassador to South Vietnam during the ramp up of the Vietnam War. While still serving in that capacity, he sought the Republican nomination for president, meaning that he would be running against his boss for president under a completely different party banner had he been nominated (and this wasn’t a long shot: he won the New Hampshire primary!). Eventually Johnson appointed him to the West Germany ambassadorship and once Nixon took office he made him the Personal Representative of the President to the Holy See, a post he would hold under both Ford and Carter as well. But when Nixon ran eight years later, a little older and a bit more of a known quantity, he went in a totally different direction by selecting Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew, a man five years Nixon’s junior who had been elected to his office only two years prior. In Nixonland, Rick Perlstein describes Nixon and Agnew as kindred spirits: “Both the sons of grocers who were strict disciplinarians, both had worked their way through college, both junior officers in World War II.” Agnew also matched Nixon politically by ostensibly supporting civil rights (he won the governorship by accurately painting his opponent as a virulent racist) while also cracking down on civil rights protests. In 1960, Nixon had to make room on the ticket to represent the interests of the rest of the party. In 1968, he had enough clout to try and remake it in his own image.
In 1960, Nixon had to make room on the ticket to represent the interests of the rest of the party. In 1968, he had enough clout to try and remake it in his own image.
On the surface, it seems like Trump could make a similar switch. While Pence was ultimately chosen by the Trump campaign, it was no doubt done so to placate the party establishment and the Republicans’ socially conseravtive base. But for a while it seemed like Trump would be able to reshape the party in his image too — his approval was regularly polling in the upper 80s and low 90s among Republican voters, and while he lost re-election, he avoided the drubbing many had predicted, and may have even had some coattails on the congressional level. Even if they didn’t like his style, the Republican Party had to like the results.
But then January happened. Trump’s constant crowing about unsubstantiated voter fraud, particularly in Georgia, hamstrung Republican efforts in that state’s Senate runoffs and handed both of their candidates defeat, shifting Senate control towards the Democrats for at least the next two years. The very next day, Trump incited a crowd of his supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol while Congress was counting the electoral votes, putting the lives of members of his own party in danger. An unprecedented second impeachment followed, which ten House Republicans voted in favor of, including a member of the party’s leadership. A second trial awaits, one in which Trump may in fact be convicted by members of his own party and be prevented from serving as president again. In just two months, he went from a mitigator of Republican decline to the first president to lose the White House and both houses of Congress in one term since Herbert Hoover, and then to an incitor of violence against Congress, and a true pariah inside his own party’s leadership, if not publicly, then privately.
In just two months, [Trump] went from a mitigator of Republican decline to the first president to lose the White House and both houses of Congress in one term since Herbert Hoover.
The events of the last few weeks may make this article feel futile, but let’s not miss the forest for the trees. Three quarters of Republican voters still approve of the job Trump is doing as president, and the impeachment votes and the votes to certify the Arizona and Pennsylvania electors show that he still has the support of most of the House of Representatives, who are typically closer to the grassroots activists, local parties, and — by extension — primary voters, rather than senators or other national party leaders. In other words, it’s very possible that Trump could win the 2024 Republican primary with a big part of the party’s national and congressional leadership opposing him. In that case, does he try to placate the party by choosing a running mate who represents them, or does he dip into his pool of congressional and state level allies to try and create a party that represents him? Or does he try it all over again?
Let’s start with the obvious. Ever since the November election and the slew of ceremonial counting and certification instances that followed, Pence’s relationship with Trump has soured. And it’s soured — at least publicly — fairly quickly. Trump called on Pence, in his role as vice president presiding over the electoral vote count, to “reject fraudulently chosen electors,” a power which, of course, the vice president does not have. Pence pushed back, reportedly told Trump he has no such power, and that therefore the election would not be overturned.
During the ensuing chaos at the Capitol, in which Pence’s own life was put in danger, Trump supporters chanted “hang Mike Pence!” as they breached security. Pence nonetheless finally announced the electoral count certifying Joe Biden and Kamala Harris had won and relations between Trump and Pence really fell by the wayside. Trump didn’t speak to Pence that day, or the days following (once again, remember that Pence was being targeted by name by Trump’s own supporters), and it seems like Pence is quietly heading for the door, ready for a political life away from Trump.
Pence has very little to gain by publicly supporting Trump and thus meeting the wrath of most of the country and an emerging bulwark of his own party, or publicly condemning Trump and thus meeting the wrath of Trump’s supporters who already view him as a traitor.
It’s the most strained their relationship has been since the Access Hollywood tape emerged during Trump’s 2016 campaign for president. But this time, Pence has very little to gain by publicly supporting Trump and thus meeting the wrath of most of the country and an emerging bulwark of his own party, or publicly condemning Trump and thus meeting the wrath of Trump’s supporters who already view him as a traitor. His best course is to do exactly what he’s been doing: keeping his head down and waiting it out. Even if Trump still liked Pence, which there’s not a lot of evidence for, Pence doesn’t need Trump to carry him to office next year. That ship has already sailed; Trump failed to win reelection, and Pence may have machinations of his own in the years to come that may put him in direct conflict with the big man himself.
For starters, Mike Pence may be planning to run for president himself in 2024. Pence, pretty understandably, considering it’s been a modern norm for vice presidents to seek the promotion themselves, has run a high risk-high reward gambit for the last five years in tying himself to Trump. It paid off incredibly in 2016, catapulting the relatively unimaginative Indiana Governor to the White House by sheer nature of the fact that Pence was one of the few mainstream Republicans (something Trump needed to complement his erratic outsider candidacy; we have an entire podcast episode about it) willing to join what was then viewed as a losing ticket. Mike Pence is now a household name, the presumptive heir to the Republican throne, and he’s set himself up nicely (and continues to do so by unassumingly biding his time until the inauguration) as the “establishment” Republican most related to the president who can carry on the administration’s legacy.
If Trump neuters Pence’s presumptive candidacy by declaring that he’ll be running again in 2024, it could set up quite a showdown for the nomination. Despite Pence starting to emerge as a popular alternative after the January 6 Capitol riot and an unprecedented collapse in Trump’s approval ratings, Trump remains a pretty popular figure within the party, and a frontrunner in 2024, with 40% of Republicans backing him.
A president facing his own vice president for the nomination in the modern era has never occurred, and though it’s happened in American history (looking at you, election of 1800), the only real point of comparison we have is the 1940 Democratic Convention. President Franklin Roosevelt, seeking a third consecutive term, was challenged by his own vice president, John Nance Garner.4Garner is perhaps most famous for being the vice president to declare his own office as “not worth a bucket of warm piss.” To be fair to Garner, Roosevelt had hedged and hesitated on his intentions to run for president for a third term, so Garner went ahead planning on Roosevelt’s stepping down, as did DNC Chairman James Farley (who had also been Roosevelt’s campaign manager), and they both declared their candidacies, only to lose to a “spontaneous” nomination of Roosevelt for a third term during the convention. Garner — and many other Democrats for that matter — did not like the idea of a president seeking an unprecedented third term in office and their relationship had soured in Roosevelt’s second term. This bit of machiavellian chicanery providing the illusion of humility likely didn’t improve that, so Roosevelt selected a new running mate, Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace.5This is also the moment that we have to thank for the practice of presidential nominees selecting their own running mates, as opposed to the conventions themselves, so followers of this site owe a debt of gratitude to John Nance Garner, no matter how much he hated the vice presidency…
This analogy is actually more astute than it may seem at first. Trump has done everything to set himself up as a 2024 candidate outside of explicitly saying that he’ll run. The party is nervous about him seeking another term, and Pence and Trump’s relationship has crumbled (if not quite as publicly). Pence was frustrated about being left hung out to dry by the president after his years of fealty, and the entire episode stinks of the breakdown of communication that seemed prevalent in the Garner-Roosevelt saga.
Pence is a proponent of the system and its traditions; he plans to attend Biden’s inauguration, symbolically upholding the election result, and is working within the GOP to coalesce support for congressional candidates and his own future aspirations. If you’re distancing yourself from Trump while trying to ruffle as few feathers as possible, this is exactly how one would go about doing it. It’s much better to stand inside the party, saying nothing, and look out at the president than to join him flailing uncontrollably, destroying the party’s future electoral prospects from the outside. Better to appear a president-in-waiting than a sore loser willing to tear down your remaining credibility on the way out the door.
“Go Down in History as a Patriot… Or Go Down in History as a Pussy”
Trump will brand Pence as the man who couldn’t find a way to overturn the election for him. The man who was in charge of the White House Coronavirus Task Force and can easily be thrown under the bus as mishandling the crisis if it proves politically expedient.
There’s the flipside to this too, in that Trump probably doesn’t want Pence around either! Before Pence headed to the Capitol for the January 6 electoral vote count, Trump reportedly pushed once more on his number two: “You can either go down in history as a patriot… or you can go down in history as a pussy.” Pence, in Trump’s mind, chose the latter. Trump will brand Pence as the man who couldn’t find a way to overturn the election for him. The man who was in charge of the White House Coronavirus Task Force and can easily be thrown under the bus as mishandling the crisis if it proves politically expedient. Trump can blame Pence for his administration’s failures (the coronavirus pandemic being the most costly, with almost 400,000 Americans dead as of January 19). To Trump, Pence is yet another RINO insider who failed to defend him and his followers in making America great again.
The track record for those people has not been encouraging, at least not while Trump has been president. They’ve been cast to the side of the party (Mitt Romney), lost primaries to a more Trump-aligned conservative (Scott Tipton, Jeff Sessions), or declined to run for reelection for fear of both (Jeff Flake, Paul Ryan, Justin Amash, Will Hurd). Pence will probably go the way of other Trump cabinet officials who have been fired or resigned. Much like Jeff Sessions before him, Trump will blame him for his own mistakes, accept no fault of his own, insult his character, and deem him insufficiently loyal, while he tries to maintain his absolute loyalty and support for the president.
Like Nixon’s second run for the presidency in 1968, Trump no longer needs someone to give him credibility, or to convince people he’s a conservative Republican — he will want a more kindred spirit. Someone with the same vitriol and disdain for institutions and traditions. Someone who will be more vocally defensive of the former president than even Mike Pence was, and let Trump — like Nixon — remake the entire party in his own image.
So, yes, a Trump-Pence reunion seems pretty unlikely at this point. But we live in unprecedented times, so let’s entertain the possibility of an unprecedented reconciliation.
Let’s assume that Donald Trump wins renomination in 2024. If he does so, it’ll be as the standard bearer of a divided party — he’d likely be challenged in the primary by a Never Trump Republican (Maryland Governor Larry Hogan seems like a potential contestant) and a faction of Republicans who voted to impeach or convict him in 2021 (headlined by Utah Senator Mitt Romney) could refuse to support him. He’ll still have his die-hards within the party of course, but there’ll also be a group of conservative Republicans who are skeptical of Trump personally, though they recognize that he turns out voters for the party. For that final group, the selection of a Trump yes man to the ticket would leave them without a voice in the White House and without a check of Trump’s worst impulses. They’ll lobby him to include someone who can advocate for their interests in the White House while making sure he doesn’t go completely off the rails by, say, overturning the results of a presidential election. Lucky for them, Michael Richard Pence has already done all of those things, making him an acceptable choice to the party.
But why would he be an acceptable choice for Trump? Well, there’s always the issue of Trump’s ego: he doesn’t want to make it look like he made a mistake in 2016, and the only way to avoid that is to pick Pence again. But there’s also the problem of the general election, and winning enough independents and Democrats to actually become president again. Pence was arguably the most visible figure of the Capitol riots, and that would help him in any election, be it presidential or vice presidential. He refused to be intimidated by people calling for his death and executed his constitutional duty, even though it required him to humbly announce his defeat in the electoral college. There is something virtuous, perhaps even heroic, in the role he played during the vote count that has the potential to appeal to Trump-skeptical voters. It’d probably be hard for most people to reconcile seeing him up on stage again with the very man who whipped up those riots and tried to upend the system Pence wound up defending, but hey, at least someone would be around to prevent Trump from trying to do the same thing over again. And who knows: Trump will be 78 in 2024, and that nice Midwestern man who stood up to him would only be a heartbeat away…
Trump picking Pence as his running mate again is a long shot, for sure, and hinges almost completely on the fact that Pence is likely to be remembered more fondly by the American public than Trump himself. But politics is a business, and it never hurts to have a popular running mate. The Democrats once had to balance their tickets between Northern liberals and Southern segregationists. Stranger things have happened.
Who Might He Choose?
If Trump secures the Republican nomination again in 2024, maintaining his relevance and ability to truly define and shape the GOP for decades to come, his running mate will be the surest sign of what he plans and believes his success is due to. In 2024, Trump would presumably have his pick of the litter, in stark contrast to 2016 when many in the Republican Party believed Trump would never be elected president and flatly declined to be considered. With hindsight we know Trump has a slim, but functional electoral strategy: turn out an incredibly passionate base who are overrepresented in states on the electoral college margin. It’s not a strategy that can win Trump a majority of American voters, but with a built in electoral bias against urban areas, it’s a strategy that can, and has, succeeded.
How Trump chooses to compose the 2024 ticket and its subsequent success or failure could define his legacy. If he can prove that his strategy and his narrow vision of America can be all-encompassing and even majoritarian, he could become the Republican’s new Ronald Reagan. But if it spirals into failure, costs Republicans two successive presidential elections and control of the Congress, leaving them with a coalition based on a minority of Americans, it will put the bullet in his political career and his vision of the Republican party.
This leaves Trump an array of options across his admittedly-large corner of the Republican Party. Who he chooses will be a key indicator in how he sees himself and what he prizes if he runs again. Electability or shared rhetoric, acquiescence or diversity, loyalty or appeasement.
Trump’s second (and most loyal) Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, is unique in his ability to combine Trump’s ideology and style with a respectable and technocratic position and personality. This is a choice of convenience and adaptation rather than one of deeply held conviction, as the former Army officer turned Republican Congressman from Kansas is not very similar to Trump in terms of mercurial governance or volatile rhetoric. Pompeo is much more a creature of Washington than Trump, which may make them unlikely bedfellows. But in truth, Pompeo is one of the strongest candidates to display what Trump and his supporters may see as the administration’s success. Trump has received praise from unlikely sources for his foreign policy and Pompeo is well positioned to provide credibility and experience, while moulding to Trump’s messaging and policy goals.
The prospects on Trump-Pompeo really depend on how you view Trump and his aims. If Trump wants to get elected to enact his policies and crusade for what he views as right, Pompeo is the ideal choice. But if Trump uses his described policies and rhetoric simply as a means to get elected, an end in itself, then Pompeo is not the choice for him. This is not to say either philosophy is correct. A foundational question in political science rests on whether politicians run for office to support policies (probably, initially at least), or support policies simply to get in office (probably, after they’ve been elected before).
Which brings us to the other memorable and perhaps more electorally-motivated diplomat from the Trump administration: his first ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley. Haley, an Indian-American, was the first female governor of South Carolina, and is unique among former Trump administration figures in that she left her office as United Nations ambassador seemingly on good terms and even spoke at the Republican National Convention in his favor (as did everyone at the convention, so being allowed to speak at all reflects well on her relationship with Trump). Haley has quietly critiqued Trump on some points, but publicly she stresses her loyalty to the man, remarking in her memoir that early in the administration, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sought to bring her on their side to “save the country” by resisting Trump, but she refused to do. After the 2020 election, Haley remained hushed (and therefore complicit) in regards to Trump’s claims of a stolen election and his attempts to undermine it. After the January 6 storming of the Capitol, Haley criticized Trump (in closed-door remarks), but she also said that Twitter blocking Trump was akin to “what happens in China.” To put it mildly, Haley is playing every side of the GOP. Mainstream Republicans like her for her solid conservative credentials and reputation, Trump and his posse appreciate a woman of color’s supposed reverence for the president, and the media magnify her electability as a more compassionate candidate for the party suffering from a reputation of being dominated by white men.
While most Senate Republicans dropped their objections to the electoral vote count after the riot at the Capitol, Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri stood steadfastly by President Trump’s baseless accusations of voter fraud. While this appears to have hurt them reputationally and financially in the short term, it could certainly help them in 2024 if the Republican base decides they want a Trump redux. Although both are likely candidates in a Trumpless field (recall that Cruz came in second place in the 2016 primary), the assumption is that Trump values loyalty above all else, and few have been more loyal in the waning days of his administration than Cruz and Hawley.
The assumption is that Trump values loyalty above all else, and few have been more loyal in the waning days of his administration than Cruz and Hawley.
Cruz probably makes the most sense from an electoral strategy standpoint — Trump made gains among Latino voters in 2020, and nominating a Cuban Texan could appeal to precincts in the Rio Grande Valley and South Florida that have been traditionally Democratic constituencies. But while Cruz is a former constitutional conservative who now seems to bend whichever way the wind blows, Hawley has taken reliably Trumpian position on abortion, China, and trade from day one. If Trump truly wants to rebrand the Republican Party in his image, his best bet is probably Hawley who, in addition to concurring with Trump’s request for $2000 coronavirus relief checks, will be only 43 in 2024, and could carry the Trump banner into future presidential bids himself.
Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas checks a lot of the same boxes as Hawley. He seconded Trump’s suggestion that the United States buy Greenland and seemed to delight at “owning the libs” at the “failing” New York Times after the ensuing controversy surrounded by his op-ed in favor of using the military to put down this summer’s unrest. He is also another 2024 aspirant, but his early opposition to overturning the electoral college vote docks him loyalty points. His latest hobby horse is arguing any impeachment trial that would take place after Trump leaves office would be unconstitutional, so he may end up back in the soon-to-be-former president’s good graces sooner rather than later.
Rick Scott is another Republican senator frequently floated as a 2024 candidate, and while his ability to self-fund and his electoral success in Florida (he was a two term governor before being elected to the Senate) make him an appealing choice, he’s had a rough month. The new chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee had to endure the indignity of his party losing both Georgia Senate seats on only his third day on the job, and on his fourth day of the job he voted to reject Pennsylvania’s electoral votes. That’s a big problem, because it means that the big corporate donors who have pledged not to donate to candidates who voted to reject 2020’s electoral votes may opt not to donate to him or the NRSC. Still, these things may not matter as much on a presidential ticket, where Scott can help bring some more traditional conservatives back into the Trump camp. Although the fact that he and Trump will be a combined 150 years old in 2024, and that one of them would have to change their state of residence for electors in Florida to legally vote for both of them,6Electors from one state are forbidden from voting for two candidates from the same state on their ballot. They’d be forfeiting a given number of electoral votes, possibly ending up with a situation where a president or vice president were elected without the other. This almost happened in the year 2000, both George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were registered in Texas, but Cheney changed his registration to Wyoming before the election. The electoral vote was close enough where this would have deprived Cheney the vice presidency (at least initially) and required the Senate to choose a vice president. are also points against him.
Lastly there’s Tim Scott, Senator from South Carolina and the 2020 Republican National Convention’s keynote speaker. Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, is a natural choice for a party looking to build on the marginal gains they made among Black voters in 2020. But a political marriage between him and Trump would be uneasy. Scott did not vote to reject either Arizona or Pennsylvania’s electoral votes, and he’s been a frequent critic of Trump’s flirtations with white nationalism. There are a myriad of reasons why it makes sense for Scott to be on a Republican presidential ticket; the path to him sharing a ticket with Trump, however, is a bit more fraught. If Trump wants to nominate a non-white Republican who’s been a little more loyal to him, he could always opt for Florida’s Marco Rubio, who after being a sharp critic of Trump in the 2016 primaries, became one of his more high profile apologists. A Rubio nomination could help shift South Florida from light blue to light red in 2024, lock the state up for Trump, and also expand the GOP’s outreach efforts to Latino voters.7Though Rubio would face the same electoral issue as Rick Scott in that he and Trump are from the same state. If Trump is really left without many friends in 2024, he could also turn to Lindsey Graham of South Carolina whose relationship with Trump has followed a similar trajectory to Rubio’s. Though Graham’s age and ties to Bush-era neoconservatives may make him a non-starter electorally.
The Trump True Believers
If there’s one place in Washington where Donald Trump’s legacy will be felt after he leaves office, it’ll probably be in the House of Representatives where an entire generation of early career politicians have made a name for themselves by defending the 45th president and adopting his brand of politics as their own. Perhaps the most high profile among them is Matt Gaetz of Florida, who has a reputation as one of Trump’s most vocal defenders in Congress. Look at any of the many Trump-related controversies over the last four years and you’ll likely find Gaetz on a cable news channel or on Twitter acting as the president’s unofficial PR arm. His most high-profile stunt was probably his storming of the SCIF8Which stands for Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, which is a closed room where members of government access and review classified information. They are limited to those with certain security clearances and electronic devices are restricted. during the testimony from a Pentagon official as part of the Trump impeachment inquiry, which drew the ire of even Trump ally Lindsey Graham. Gaetz’s support of the president has persisted into the lame duck period, during which Gaetz has parroted Trump’s baseless claims of widespread voter fraud and alleged that some of the rioters who stormed the Capitol were Antifa members. Gaetz’s compatibility with Trump on a political level is undeniable, and his youth (he’ll be 42 in 2024) and penchant for brand building make him a natural bridge to a new generation of Trump Republicans. While he’s still a backbencher, there’s still plenty of time for him to make a move (including an unlikely run for the Senate in 2022) to raise his profile. Like fellow Floridians Rick Scott or Marco Rubio, either Gaetz or Trump would have to leave Florida for them to become a viable presidential ticket, but seeing as Gaetz floated the idea of moving to Alabama for a day to run for the Senate in 2020, I’m sure he’d be happy to acquiesce.
Dan Crenshaw of Texas is another stalwart Trump defender who, on paper, is a much more appealing choice than Gaetz. A photogenic retired Navy SEAL, he first came to wider national attention after appearing on Saturday Night Live to respond to Pete Davidson’s controversial jokes about Crenshaw’s eyepatch (he lost his right eye while serving in the War in Afghanistan), and has crafted an online personality for himself via his Twitter account and action movie-esque campaign ads. A fresh face from a large and rapidly changing state is an appealing choice for a running mate, but Crenshaw has started to break with Trump in recent weeks. While he initially filed an amicus brief in support of Texas’s lawsuit to overturn Pennsylvania’s electoral votes, he voted against overturning those same votes after the riot in the Capitol, and defended House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney’s vote to impeach Trump. Like Gaetz, he probably needs to build up a more substantive legislative record separate from his antics and advertisements for him to be taken seriously as a vice presidential contender by the party elite.
If you know the name of two freshman representatives of the 117th Congress, it’s probably Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, neither of whom may have had political careers if not for Donald Trump. Both have been tied to the pro-Trump QAnon consipracy theory and both have alleged that Trump actually won the 2020 election. Republicans have fretted about their prospects with suburban white women, and Boebert and Greene’s embodiment of the members of that demographic who have adopted Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric about Black Lives Matter, COVID-19, and the dangers of the political left could help mobilize similar voters. Of course, they’ll only have two terms under their belt by 2024, which makes it harder to argue that they are ready to serve as president if the event arose. But hey, a lot can happen for two years — unfortunately for Boebert, that includes being investigated for her role in the Capitol riot, and unfortunately for Greene, I don’t think that it will include an impeachment of Joe Biden.
An indispensable part of the Trump brand is a sense of victimhood and aggrievedness.
Lasty, there’s the longest of long shots: Representative Ronny Jackson of Texas. Jackson served as Physician to the President until 2018, when Trump nominated him as Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Jackson’s nomination was quickly sunk by allegations that he drank on the job and improperly handed out medications, prompting him to withdraw his nomination and set his eyes on Congress instead. He centered his campaign around his closeness to Trump and even went as far as to claim that Obama illegally spied on the Trump campaign. Again, Jackson is a hell of a longshot, but an indispensable part of the Trump brand is a sense of victimhood and aggrievedness, which Jackson will be able to play into with his failed cabinet appointment. If high profile Republicans defect from another Trump nomination and all of the prime choices are apprehensive to join the ticket, why shouldn’t Trump turn to someone who’s been a friend?
The Metaphorical Trump Heirs
While the Capitol riot has cooled relations between Trump and some of his one-time allies in Congress, he enjoys the adoration of a number of state level officials and even some members of the media. If there are two governors who seem positioned to sell themselves to the Republican base as “kinder, gentler” versions of Donald Trump, it’d probably be Ron DeSantis of Florida and Kristi Noem of South Dakota. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, DeSantis and Noem have won favor in some conservative circles for largely eschewing the stay-at-home orders embraced by most other governors. DeSantis was a staunch defender of Trump while a member of Congress, where he sought to end funding for the Mueller investigation and joined in efforts to pass the Trump tax cuts and repeal Obamacare. As governor, he made fighting illegal immigration a priority, passing anti-sancutary city laws while directing local law enforcement to cooperate with ICE, and implied that legislatures in states won by Biden should send their own electors to Congress. From an electoral perspective, he’s young and from an important state, but he also has to run for reelection in 2022. Even though Florida seems to trend redder and redder with each election cycle, he only won his first election by half a percentage point, and who knows what effect his controversial handling of the pandemic will have on next year’s contest — even a close win may deplete some of his resources and political capital.
Like a lot of potential running mates, Noem is clearly angling for a presidential run of her own, recently speaking at an RNC forum for potential candidates, where she won over attendees by praising Trump and lambasting Senators-elect Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff of Georgia as “communists.” There was also speculation that Trump could replace Pence on the ticket with Noem this past summer, after Noem hosted Trump at a Fourth of July celebration at Mount Rushmore and rode with him on Air Force One back to Washington (that celebration included presenting Trump with a replica of Mount Rushmore with his face added to it). Trump and Noem clearly see each other as kindred spirits, and along with their mutual admiration and compatible politics, Noem could also help Trump regain some of his edge with suburban female voters. Not to mention her penchant for hunting and shooting will surely sew up his already solid rural base. The potential Trump campaign may want to monitor her performance in the 2022 reelection bid to see if the handling of the pandemic hurt her in a solidly red state, but she’s virtually assured of victory, and a big win could springboard Noem to higher office.
Carlson’s blend of cultural conservatism, opposition to immigration, and advocacy for protectionist and interventionist fiscal policy would make him appealing to a Trump-controlled Republican Party in search of a more coherent messenger.
Last in this array of outsiders, Tucker Carlson has never held public office, but the Fox News host’s shift from Ron Paul-esque libertarian to Trump-esque populist have made him one of the loudest voices of the pro-Trump right, and has even generated some presidential hype of his own. From an ideological perspective, Carlson’s blend of cultural conservatism, opposition to immigration, and advocacy for protectionist and interventionist fiscal policy would make him appealing to a Trump-controlled Republican Party in search of a more coherent messenger. There’s certainly tremendous potential from an electoral standpoint — his attacks on free market capitalism could attract some disaffected leftists from the Democratic Party (he’s even gone as far to endorse some of Elizabeth Warren’s economic views) and assuming he keeps hosting his show for at least part of the campaign, he’ll have access to what’s effectively free advertising. But his association with the polarizing Fox News brand and controversial statements about minority groups and women may make him anathema to suburbanites who are already turned off by Trump’s rabble-rousing. It’d fire up the base for sure, but may not expand it.
The Actual Trump Heirs
Let’s say this upfront: Donald Trump is almost certainly not going to run for reelection with a member of his own family on the ticket. The chances of this are overhyped, overrated, and overblown. Yes, Trump made his children and their spouses key figures in his campaign and in his administration, but it’s worth noting that he never 1) nominated them for any Senate-confirmable position; 2) deployed them in any legal capacity (unlike other nepotistic but equally incompetent defenders, like say, Rudy Giuliani); or 3) seriously utilized them in a congressional-relations or domestic capacity. They were outsourced to campaigning, defending the patriarch on the airwaves, or a “Middle East peace plan” that even Trump did not seem to care strongly about.
These three things matter because they indicate a lack of domestic, inter-governmental, and administrative efficacy. Jared Kushner is not destined to run for governor of New York, Ivanka Trump is not equipped to negotiate with congressional leaders, and Eric Trump is not capable of running a government department. The chances of any of them sailing through even a Republican-controlled Senate and landing in a cushy ambassadorship, let alone a technocratic role like Secretary of the Treasury are slim to none. It’s a bad look, and Trump even somewhat conceded this during the brief stint where he was considering Ivanka to lead the World Bank. “If I did, they’d say nepotism, when it would’ve had nothing to do with nepotism,” were Trump’s sentiments, despite his insistence that Ivanka was uniquely qualified because “she’s very good with numbers.”
So, why include the Trump clan at all in our listing here? Because if the goal is truly to remake the Republican Party in Trump’s image, guarantee loyalty and absolute devotion, while consecrating the Trump family as synonymous with a Republican dynasty, choosing his family is one of the surest and most egregious ways to do it. It falls squarely outside of any norms or traditions in the American political system, no matter how controversial John F. Kennedy appointing his brother Robert as attorney general may have been. If Trump can sail through the 2024 Republican primary and seamlessly retain control and command of attention during the Biden administration, that may be the only situation in which a Trump-Trump ticket has a chance to emerge. Senate confirmation isn’t necessary to choose a running mate, so a pluralistic primary with a populist winner-takes-all election that the Republican Party thrives on is the only way we could seriously see a full Trump family takeover. Just remember that a lot of Republican interests, including Republicans in power, would have to resolve themselves to this, or at least be willing to do what they did for much of Trump’s four years in office, and quietly accept yet another break in democratic norms in the name of electoral benefit. This is why the primary itself is the key factor in whether the GOP becomes the all-encompassing party of Trump, or some derivation of him with a more compassionate approach.
What to Watch for
Let’s sum this up with what you can look out for, and what we’ll be watching for in the next few years as the 2024 primary heats up. If Trump runs, be mindful of the competition he faces and the messaging he embraces.
First, the competition. The 2024 Republican primary is on track to be a populated one, with perhaps the starkest difference in paths for the party we’ve seen for Republicans in a while. Moderates seeking to reclaim the party and “move on”, like Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, will represent one path for the post-Trump era. Trump die-hards already empowered in the Senate like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz will represent a more clean-cut version of Trumpism, while Tom Cotton — almost as depraved in his fealty to the Trumpian idea — distances himself from their corner of the party. And the most obvious candidates, like Nikki Haley and Mike Pence, try to set themselves up as Trump’s successors, without the demagogic anti-democratic behavior (which honestly, may be a liability). Pence’s behavior the last four years and this January has upset everyone in the party who either loved Trump and believes the election was stolen from him, or dislikes Trump and the path the party has taken under him. And that’s… well, almost everyone.
If Trump runs once more in 2024, don’t expect any of his primary opponents to get picked as his running mate. Trump’s not one for letting things go and putting someone who challenged him in a position of power. This is reason alone to be skeptical of the senators we’ve listed, who are more preoccupied with running for president themselves and see supporting Trump as a means to that end. The party will push back a lot more on a dynasty ticket than they will on picking a younger Trump true believer, but picking a devout governor or outsider in the vein of Trump may offer the best of all worlds. However, if Trump enters the race and clears the field, as he had high prospects for before the attack on the Capitol, there will be a broader slate of options, and some of the more loyal senators may be able to bridge Trump’s good graces with the support of those who have been leading the resistance to Biden’s agenda in his absence in government.
The Republican Party can be coerced and once more assimilated, rather than annihilated in [Trump’s] path.
Finally, take note of how a potential candidate Trump exhibits himself. If he spends the next two years claiming the election was stolen from him, defending pardoning his cronies and supporters, and burning every bridge with a party hesitant to fully break from him, Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, and the senators are out of the running. He’ll have to sink to the depths of those who remain devoted to his lost cause and tear a hole in the Republican Party once more. Trump’s campaign in 2020 was, to be generous, light on policy and lacked any overarching message other than the radical left destroying the country and making it worse, which is a hard message to deliver when you’re literally the president. But if Trump goes back to his 2016 campaign playbook and runs on a concrete message of election fraud, an immigration crisis, and arguing that he alone can save the country as an outsider, the Republican Party can be coerced and once more assimilated, rather than annihilated in his path. In this case, the premise in reuniting the dream team, running a more electable ticket, or hand-picking a successor to his legacy from the legion of mainstream Republicans who stood by him once and may do so again, will seem ever more apparent.