The race for the Republican presidential nomination, once a two-man battle between former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, is getting more crowded.
Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the Senate’s only Black Republican and a favorite of many GOP donors, declared his candidacy last week. A few nights later, DeSantis belatedly made his own candidacy official in a chaotic Twitter event. That brought the number of major candidates to six, and more may join soon.
Trump holds a commanding position in the polls, but he is attracting serious rivals who think he can be beaten. Over a yearlong campaign, plenty can change: Eight years ago, at this point in the 2016 contest, Trump was the favorite of only 4% of GOP voters.
The growing number of entrants is good news for the front-runner, who benefits from facing fragmented opposition as he did in 2016. But it’s also good news for Republican voters, who are not only getting more candidates to choose from, but also more ideas about their party’s post-Trump future — even though that may not arrive until 2028.
“Are we going to continue to be a populist party as Trump has pushed, or are we going to move back to being a more conservative party?” GOP strategist Alex Conant said of the primary.
To no one’s surprise, Trump is offering four more years of the grievance-fueled politics that gave him his first term. He has promised supporters: “For those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”
As president, Trump broke with Republican doctrine on Social Security and Medicare, promising never to cut the benefits. On free trade, he declared himself “a tariff man,” and on foreign policy, he criticized traditional alliances and cozied up to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But he stuck with traditional GOP policies on other issues including lower taxes, even for the wealthy; lighter environmental and safety regulations on businesses; and tougher restrictions on abortion.
Trump’s rivals have embraced most of his policies, but with variations that fall into three rough categories:
—Trump 2.0: DeSantis has offered a hard-edged version of Trumpism that focuses on “culture war” issues, denouncing what he calls “the woke mind virus.”
He endorsed a state law banning abortion after six weeks, a measure Trump suggested was “too harsh.”
He has championed laws banning gender-affirming healthcare for transgender minors and classroom instruction about sexual orientation.
And he has attacked the Walt Disney Co. over its political positions, a battle Trump derided as ill-advised.
—Trump Light: Scott, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence (who hasn’t formally announced) are promoting mostly Trumpian policies, too, but in a kinder, gentler tone.
Scott is the clearest example, calling for a return to the optimistic big-tent conservatism perfected by Ronald Reagan more than a generation ago.
Republicans must decide between “grievance and greatness,” the senator said in his announcement last week.
“We need a president who persuades not just our friends and our base,” he said. “We have to have a compassion for people who don’t agree with us.”
Unlike Trump and DeSantis, Scott, Haley and Pence have all called for a strong U.S. commitment to NATO and Ukraine.
—Trump Critics: Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and current New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu are this pack’s leading renegades. All three are thoroughgoing conservatives, but all have condemned Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
“Donald Trump has a moral responsibility for what happened on Jan. 6,” said Hutchinson, the only one of the three who has announced his candidacy. “Whenever you look at what he wants to do as president, it’s more about getting even with his political enemies than leading our country.”
Christie has called Trump “a puppet of Putin.”
All three appear way out of step with their party’s voters, and they barely register in the polls. In a CBS News survey last month, 61% of Republican voters said they wanted a candidate who affirms their belief that Trump won in 2020.
But even if these renegades go nowhere in the polls, they could play a significant role in the election.
As DeSantis, Scott, Haley and Pence have hesitated to confront Trump directly —even when it came to his readiness to violate the Constitution when he sought to overturn the 2020 election — they’ve steered themselves into a Catch-22: They want to displace the former president as their party’s leader, but they don’t want to alienate his followers.
That leaves them arguing that they would make better nominees than Trump, but unable to explain precisely why — a hard way to make a sale.
It’s the same dilemma the GOP faced in 2016, when a stage full of candidates hoped Trump’s candidacy would fail without anyone pushing.
That won’t happen. If the front-runner is to be taken down, someone will have to do it. Hutchinson, Christie and Sununu appear willing to try.
For that, they deserve a measure of admiration whether you agree with their views or not.
It will be a thankless mission with little prospect of success and a guarantee of abuse. But it may also be an event too rarely seen in a presidential campaign: a decision to put principle before ambition.