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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

MIA in 2024: The Republicans Trump vanquished in 2016

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), one of candidate Donald Trump’s primary challengers in 2016, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 7, 2022.

By Reid J. Epstein and Maguie Haberman

If Donald Trump were not running for president in 2024, there’s a group of Republicans who could be expected to vie for the White House: the ones Trump beat in 2016.

Instead, many of these once high-wattage candidates are either skipping the 2024 cycle or have bowed out of national politics altogether. Jeb Bush is mostly a political recluse. Three senators, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, all capitulated to Trump and became sometimes unconvincing acolytes. After losing reelection for governor in Wisconsin, Scott Walker now runs an organization for young conservatives and hosts a podcast.

None have shown much interest in facing the wrath of Trump again.

For all of the chatter about how the former president has grown weak politically and is ripe for overthrowing as the Republican Party’s dominant figure, and for all the polling that shows large numbers of Republican voters would prefer that Trump not run again, the will to challenge him is small, and the few contenders brave enough so far are inexperienced on the national stage.

That has left Trump as potentially the only Republican candidate in 2024 who has run for president before. The last time an open Republican presidential primary featured just one candidate who had previously sought the office was in 1980.

The relatively small size of the prospective 2024 field of Trump challengers, with several potential candidates dragging their feet on entering the race, may have something to do with the debasing experience of the Republicans who battled him in 2016 and came away with nothing to show for it but insulting sobriquets like Low-Energy Jeb, Lyin’ Ted and Liddle Marco.

“I was just wise enough to see it before everybody else, so I didn’t get a nickname,” Walker said in an interview of his 2016 campaign, which he ended after 71 days with a warning to consolidate behind one candidate or risk nominating Trump. “I could see the phenomenon that was Donald Trump going into the 2016 election. And it just took others longer to figure that out.”

Several of the other Republicans who lost in 2016 have made clear that they have absolutely no intention of confronting Trump again.

“I will always do what God wants me to do, but I hope that’s not it,” said Ben Carson, the pioneering neurosurgeon who became Trump’s housing secretary after his primary loss. “It’s not something I particularly want.”

Carson went so far as to say he never wanted to run for president in the first place. “I didn’t particularly want to do it then,” he said. “There were so many pushing me to do it. I said, ‘If people really want me to, I will,’ but it was never anything that I wanted to do. I certainly don’t want to do it now.”

Cruz, who has said repeatedly that he is running for reelection to the Senate and not for president, predicted last fall that if Trump chose to bow out, “everybody runs.” And Walker, in his interview, said he still harbored presidential ambitions — but not right now.

“I’m a quarter-century younger than Joe Biden, so I’ve got plenty of time,” Walker, 55, said. “But not in ’24.”

Even as the GOP salivates to take on Biden, many ambitious Republicans sense that it may be wise to wait for Trump to depart the national scene. This apparent reluctance to join the 2024 field — which early polling suggests will be dominated by Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — shows that high-level Republicans still view the former president as a grave threat to their political futures, and see more long-term costs than benefits in challenging him.

DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and several other Republicans are angling to topple Trump, but the expected field will probably fit easily on one debate stage.

Already, personal ambitions are colliding with a desire to avoid fracturing the opposition to Trump. Warning of “another multicar pileup,” former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced this month that he would not run for president. And former House Speaker Paul Ryan recently reiterated his call for a narrow primary field.

The don’t-run stance upends decades of political wisdom. Even long-shot presidential bids have provided a path to national relevance and laid the groundwork for subsequent campaigns — or at least cable TV shows. Before Trump won in 2016, seven of the previous eight Republican presidential nominees had either run for president before or been president — and the other was the son of a president. Biden won the office on his third try.

Nearly all of the Democrats who ran and lost to Biden in 2020 ended their campaigns in better political shape than they began them, either with larger national and fundraising profiles or with consolation prizes that included the vice presidency, a cabinet post, a key Senate seat, Senate committee chairs, influence on the Biden administration and a major platform as a right-wing pundit.

But Republicans eyeing 2024 appear to see less to gain. They are well aware of Trump’s cutthroat political approach and his impulse to tear down in personal terms anyone he sees as a threat — even if those traits helped win him the undying loyalty of many Republican voters and created a cult of personality that has at times consumed his party.

Although his political strength has ebbed, he still commands the loyalty of about a quarter of the party’s voters, who say they would vote for him even as an independent candidate.

For the 2016 Republican field, losing to Trump was a springboard to party obsolescence.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina became one of Trump’s most fawning supporters and has endorsed his 2024 campaign. Rubio, still a Florida senator, is now the fourth most influential Republican in his own state.

Former Gov. John Kasich of Ohio and Carly Fiorina, the former corporate executive whose signature campaign moment came in response to Trump’s denigrating her appearance, emerged in 2020 as surrogates for the Biden campaign in its effort to court moderate Republicans repelled by Trump.

George Pataki, the former three-term governor of New York, acknowledged in an interview that by the time he ran in 2016, he was past his own viability.

“Politics is about timing, and I should have run before the time I did,” Pataki said. He explained that he had never considered a 2024 campaign and that most people could plainly see the race was shaping up as a Trump-DeSantis contest.

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