The 2024 Republican shadow primary is ramping up.
The once-quiet strategizing and networking by a handful of prospective contenders for the next GOP presidential nomination has grown louder in recent weeks, as would-be hopefuls like former Vice President Mike Pence, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo begin to more aggressively flex their political muscles.
None are openly running for the White House just yet, but Republican observers and strategists say that their intentions are becoming clearer by the day. Still, there’s a long way to go before the 2024 nominating contest begins in earnest, and any potential contender still faces a key hurdle: former President Trump, who is himself considering another run for office.
“The invisible primary is real,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and former adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign. “I think the anticipation is that [President] Biden might not run again or if he does, he’ll be really vulnerable. There are a lot of people who are very excited to run in 2024 and are doing everything they can now to be ready. The starting gun goes off after the midterms.”
“Once we get past November, it’s all about running for president,” Conant added.
Even before the midterm elections, however, there are signs that the 2024 campaign is intensifying. Pence has ramped up his public schedule, traveling to Ukraine last month amid the Russian invasion. And just this week, the former vice president delivered a speech at the University of Virginia, where he teased a potential run for the White House.
“I’ll keep you posted,” he told students when asked whether he would seek the presidency in 2024.
Pence is far from the only prospective candidate signaling interest in a potential White House campaign. Haley is slated to return to Iowa this summer to attend the Dubuque Regional Reception hosted by the state GOP, putting her back in the crucial first-in-the-nation caucus state.
Pompeo, meanwhile, is set to release a new book this fall detailing his tenure in the Trump administration. He also recently suggested in an interview with Fox News that his future political ambitions — including a possible presidential run — aren’t contingent on what Trump ultimately decides to do in 2024.
“The Pompeos have always used the simple fact of, do you believe this is the moment where you think you can best serve America — this is the place you can have the most impact,” he said. “That’s going to be how we make our decision in the end. It’s the right way to think about someone who puts themselves forward to the people of the United States to run for office, whether it’s president or back in home-state Kansas.”
For would-be candidates like Pence, Haley and Pompeo — all three of whom are former Trump administration officials — the apparent early moves may be born at least somewhat out of necessity, one Republican strategist and presidential campaign veteran said. None of the three are currently serving in public office, making it more difficult to stay in the spotlight as they plot their political futures.
“There are the former Trump officials who are working very hard to stay relevant without office, so you see them writing books, traveling, going on Fox News as much as they can, because they have to work harder to position themselves for a potential run,” the strategist said.
“Running for president — unless you come to the race with fame or fortune, you have to spend a lot of time building an organization to sustain a run.”
Other prospective White House hopefuls who are current officeholders aren’t facing the same kind of pressure, said Keith Naughton, a veteran Republican strategist. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), for instance, can use his own 2022 reelection bid as a cover while leaning on the power of his office to stake out key political positions and grow his reputation.
“DeSantis is in a perfect position,” Naughton said. “He can do policy things, he can make pronouncements and dismiss any national talk because he’s running for reelection. He gets a free pass through November.”
There’s also Trump himself, who has repeatedly hinted at a 2024 comeback bid and has ramped up his own public schedule with a series of campaign-style rallies in key battleground states like Georgia and North Carolina and, later this month, Ohio. He has also begun sending signals to would-be challengers in the next GOP presidential primary, telling The Washington Post in a recent interview that, should he run for president again, other prospective candidates should stay back.
“If I ran, I can’t imagine they’d want to run,” Trump said. “Some out of loyalty would have had a hard time running. I think that most of those people … [are] there because of me.”
For the field of potential Republican presidential hopefuls, the possibility of another Trump campaign puts them in a difficult position. Brazenly laying the groundwork for White House campaigns could open them up to criticism from the former president, who remains the most influential and popular Republican in the country.
While some would-be candidates, including Haley, have said that they would support Trump as the next Republican nominee should he run again, others, like Pompeo and Pence, have made no such commitment, putting them at risk of drawing the former president’s ire before the 2024 nominating contest begins in earnest.
One Republican strategist with deep experience in presidential primaries acknowledged that some prospective candidates appear to be more brazenly positioning themselves ahead of 2024, but added that they would be wise to tread lightly in their approach.
“I suspect that some people are going to enter the race but have to be very careful about giving him some space until he decides,” the strategist said, referring to Trump. “I think they’re probably betting that what he does won’t matter as much here in another year or two. But for now, he’s still Donald Trump. He’s got a lot of power.”
On the other hand, Conant, the strategist and former Rubio adviser, said that anyone interested in running for the White House doesn’t have the luxury of time, given the logistical and political hurdles of building out a presidential campaign.
“Every candidate is, on the macro level, trying to raise their profile, distinguish themselves on some key issues. And then at the micro level, start building a team, making friends, winning over donors,” Conant said. “I think a lot of it is already happening.”