LAS VEGAS — If former President Donald Trump thought his early 2024 announcement would cow prospective Republican primary rivals into submission, he clearly miscalculated.
At this weekend’s Republican Jewish Coalition conference, a parade of ambitious Republicans hit all the notes that politicians eyeing future campaigns for the White House typically do. Their tones and messages varied — few called out Trump by name — but collectively they made clear they are not going to back down to the former president after a third consecutive poor election with him at the helm.
Mike Pompeo, Trump’s hand-picked secretary of State and CIA director, warned that for Republicans to win elections, they can’t simply “go on Fox News or send tweets.” Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who ran Trump’s transition, said Republicans were losing because “Donald Trump has put himself before everybody else.”
Nikki Haley, Trump’s U.N. ambassador who said last year she wouldn’t run if her former boss did, has apparently changed her mind. She used her Saturday evening speech here to say she was looking at running in a “serious way,” and to call for “a younger generation to lead across the board.”
The speeches by the 2024 hopefuls at The Venetian Resort here displayed how little deference Trump is receiving in the wake of his campaign announcement last week. Increasingly, they see him as beatable. And his launch two years out from the next election — with a special counsel now hovering over him — has created a big and lasting target for the roster of alternatives.
“He’s not going to have the financial support he had anymore, he’s not going to have the internal support that he had before,” said New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, whose state hosts the first-in-the-nation GOP primary. “And so therefore, there’s opportunity there. That political weakness is blood in the water for some folks.”
“Now, he’ll still be a player, but he’ll just be one of a dozen,” Sununu added. “He’s not clearing the field by any means.”
Trump, of course, has been left for dead politically many times before. And despite the incoming fire he’s facing, many Republicans regard him as the early favorite to win the nomination. Some say the willingness of others to jump into the race could well bolster his chances, potentially creating a repeat of the 2016 primary, when he prevailed over a splintered field of Republican opponents.
Speaking to the conference via video Saturday, Trump was met with rapturous applause. Many in the audience of pro-Israel attendees regard the former president as a hero for, among other moves, his decision to relocate the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
At the same time, Republican donors, activists and strategists said the midterms had left Trump bruised and vulnerable — an invitation for his would-be successors to tee off.
While Pompeo has spent the last few years appearing before Republican audiences in preparation for a 2024 bid, his remarks at this weekend’s conference were perhaps the furthest he’s gone. Pompeo noted that he’d been “loyal” throughout his tenure in the administration but said that his loyalty “wasn’t to a person, or a party or a faction” — a not-so-veiled reference to Trump.
He also suggested that Trump deserved some responsibility for the midterm failure, arguing, “Personality and celebrity just aren’t going to get it done. We can see that. The American people did not want to look back, they wanted to move forward. They care about what happens tomorrow, not what happened yesterday.”
Haley also got her digs in. While the former U.N ambassador and South Carolina governor said any “one person” didn’t deserve blame for the midterms, she remarked that “we don’t need more politicians who just want to go on TV and talk about our problems.”
Christie and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, meanwhile, used their closed-door Thursday evening appearances before a group of major donors to savage the former president. And during their public addresses on Saturday morning, Hogan argued that voters had “sent a clear message that they want to turn the page,” while Christie called for the party “to stop being afraid of any one person.”
Two Republicans used their speeches to tease their candidacies. Haley told the crowd to applause that she’s “never lost an election and I’m not going to start now.” And Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — Trump’s most formidable potential rival right now — concluded his Saturday evening keynote speech by declaring, “I can tell you this: We’ve got a lot more to do and I have only begun to fight.”
Trump isn’t just facing resistance from the Republicans looking to run. Several major donors who converged on the Las Vegas Strip this weekend indicated they weren’t ready to get behind Trump again, either. Many said they wanted to hear from his prospective opponents. Former Vice President Mike Pence used his time at the event to meet with some of them, in between his speech and a book signing.
It was the absence of one mega-donor, however, that was most telling. Miriam Adelson, the party’s most sought-after contributor and the most prominent supporter of the RJC, hasconveyed that she doesn’t plan to get involved in the primary — for Trump or anyone else. Adelson — who with her late husband, casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, were Trump’s biggest benefactors during the 2020 election — skipped this year’s event to instead take a trip to Israel.
It was seen as a tacit indication of her lack of interest in participating in the race.
“Nobody has a monopoly yet on 2024,” said RJC Executive Director Matt Brooks, who has long been close to many of the party’s top donors. “Everyone wants to see where things are heading for the future. I think everyone is at a point where they don’t want to look backward, they want to look ahead.”
“I think people are really window shopping,” Brooks added. “In terms of the people here, I think the field is wide open to earn support in 2024.”
DeSantis generated the most attention of the course of the event. After taking the podium, attendees rushed close to the stage to snap pictures of the just-reelected governor.
Sununu, who on Saturday held court in a fourth-floor conference room, said voters in New Hampshire were “open to alternatives” to Trump — and that DeSantis “could be” the frontrunner in the state.
“It’s not a runaway, and he’s the former friggin’ president. How could that be?” Sununu said of Trump. “If you’re a former president and you’re not clearing the field, what the hell are you doing?”