The ‘invisible primary’ is underway and here’s a list of potential contenders, based on early polling, interviews with Republican donors and strategists and results from online political betting markets
By D. Hunter Schwarz Apr 4, 2021, 10:00pm MDT
Photo illustration by Michelle Budge
The 2024 Republican primary is already here.
Though, we’re still more than 1,300 days away from the next presidential election, potential candidates are already making stops in early caucus and primary states and working behind the scenes to prepare for a possible run.
Late last month, C-SPAN kicked off its “Road to the White House” coverage with a speech by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Iowa, and former Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to give the keynote at a dinner for a social conservative group in South Carolina on April 29.
The lead up to the next presidential election is different than past years because of former President Donald Trump. He’s eligible to run for a second term, and has publicly toyed with the idea while also weighing in on other Republicans he thinks could be the future of the party. If Trump does run, he’d start out with unparalleled name ID and massive support, but if he doesn’t, the field could be wide open for other Republicans hoping to win over his supporters. President Joe Biden said recently he expects to run for reelection in 2024.
This early on, wannabe candidates must raise their profiles, show their commitment to the party, and raise money, one Republican strategist said, to get on people’s radars even when your candidacy is in a holding pattern.
Some of the most visible 2024 hopefuls will surely flame out long before the Iowa caucus, and there’s always the chance that the next Republican nominee isn’t yet considered a serious player (at this point in the 2016 cycle, Trump was hosting the 13th season of “The Apprentice”). There’s a million and one things that will happen between now and then that will shape the race in ways we can’t now predict, but the “invisible primary” that comes before any votes are cast has started.
Here’s your very early guide to some of 2024’s potential contenders, based on early polling, interviews with Republican donors and strategists and results from online political betting markets.
Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla., on Feb. 28, 2021.John Raoux, Associated Press
Former President Donald Trump
The biggest question mark for Republicans is Trump. He hasn’t exactly “frozen” the field, since Republicans are already positioning themselves to run, but perhaps he’s refrigerated it a bit?
“Trump is the 800-pound gorilla,” said Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor. “Trump has got command of the organs of the party and is going to have an enormous amount of resources and name ID and the ability to throw these rallies in the fall of 2022. I think that sets him up very well to being pole position for 2024 if he wants.”
Trump, 74, is currently bettors’ top candidate on PredictIt, an online prediction market, and he’s also led in several early polls, including a February Morning Consult/Politico poll. The poll found 54% of Republican voters would back Trump if the 2024 primary were held today. Those kinds of numbers would mean game over in a primary, but they also suggest many Republicans are eager for a new face.
During a recent podcast interview, Trump said he would make his 2024 decision “sometime later,” and after being asked which Republicans he thought represented the future of the party, he listed off some of the politicians you’ll see later on this list, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.
The last time a losing president tried to return to office was Grover Cleveland in 1892, and he pulled it off, becoming the only president to serve two nonconsecutive terms.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Feb. 26, 2021, in Orlando, Fla.John Raoux, Associated Press
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
DeSantis, 42, has fast emerged as a Republican rising star. He finished second in the Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll in February behind Trump, and some see him as the best positioned heir to the Trump mantle.
If Trump doesn’t run again, “I think he’s the odds-on favorite to be the next president,” Florida Republican Party chair and state Sen. Joe Gruters told NBC News of DeSantis.
DeSantis’ appeal is due in part to his combative relationship with the news media — he regularly spars with journalists, interrupting or pushing back against their questions in a way Trump fans would appreciate — and also because of his handling of the pandemic.
In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, DeSantis wrote that Florida’s less-restrictive response to COVID-19 bucked faulty intel from “the elites” and the state still ended up with “comparatively low unemployment, and per capita COVID mortality below the national average.” Florida’s COVID-19 death rate per 100,000 people is similar to California and Ohio, and so far, about 33,500 Floridians have died from the virus. New research in the American Journal of Public Health suggests the state is undercounting COVID-19 deaths.
DeSantis got his start in politics in the U.S. House in 2012, where he served three terms before running for governor in 2018. His bid got a big boost from Trump, whose endorsement propelled DeSantis over a better-funded Republican rival. DeSantis graduated from Yale and Harvard Law School and served as a judge advocate general, or JAG, in the U.S. Navy. He and wife Casey, a former local TV news host, have three children.
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks while campaigning for U.S Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., Monday, Oct. 12, 2020, in Scottsdale, Ariz.Matt York, Associated Press
Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley
Haley, 49, stands out in the potential field by her resume. She has experience as an executive as the former governor of South Carolina and foreign policy experience from her time as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Haley was a member of the Republican Party’s 2010 tea party class. A former South Carolina state representative, her long shot gubernatorial campaign saw its fortunes improve after she was endorsed by Sarah Palin. Haley rocketed from fourth to first just days after the endorsement, and she went on to clinch the nomination and become her state’s first female and first Indian-American governor.
As governor, she signed a bill removing the Confederate flag from the state Capitol following the white supremacist attack at the Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston. She left office in 2017 to join the Trump administration as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Quinnipiac poll found she was at one point the most popular member of Trump’s foreign policy team.
“I think that she’s done a pretty masterful job in filling out her resume,” said Robert Oldendick, a professor and director of graduate studies at the University of South Carolina’s department of political science.
Haley criticized Trump following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by his supporters, saying she was “disgusted” by his conduct. Oldendick said he thought her “pretty pointed criticism of the president will potentially cause some problems.”
Haley’s parents are immigrants, and she and husband Michael, a South Carolina Army National Guard captain, have two children.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks at the Sioux Falls city hall in Sioux Falls, S.D., June 22, 2020.Stephen Groves, Associated Press
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem
Noem, 49, has seen her profile rise during the pandemic, and she also had a high-profile moment last summer when she hosted Trump at Mount Rushmore for the Fourth of July. Noem gifted Trump with a Mount Rushmore replica that included his face, and her growing connection with Trump fueled speculation that he was considering swapping her for Pence as his running mate. She reportedly visited Washington, D.C., weeks later to smooth things over with Pence, according to The New York Times.
Noem isn’t one to back down from culture wars fights. She recently came under fire from social conservatives for not signing a bill she originally said she supported barring transgender athletes from competing in sports. Noem cited her concern that the state would be punished by the NCAA, but followed up last week with executive orders restricting transgender athletes in K-12 schools and colleges.
Noem also recently got in a Twitter fight with Lil Nas X over his limited-edition “Satan Shoes.” The rapper responded to her tweet by saying, “ur a whole governor and u on here tweeting” about the shoes. Noem fired back with a Bible verse from Matthew 16:26.
Like DeSantis, Noem has played up her state’s more hands-off approach to handling COVID-19, but the virus has devastated South Dakota. More than 1,900 people have died in the rural state, and it has the eighth-highest death rate per 100,000 people in the U.S., according to data compiled by Statista.
Noem, may be the only person on this list who received internship credits while a member of Congress. Noem quit school after her father died in a farming accident when she was 22 years old, but she later returned, graduating from the University of South Dakota in 2011, when she was in the House. Noem was a state lawmaker who later served five terms in the U.S. House before running for South Dakota governor in 2018. She and her husband, Bryon, have three children.
Former Vice President Mike Pence speaks after arriving back in his hometown of Columbus, Ind., as his wife Karen watches on Jan. 20, 2021. Pence is steadily reentering public life as he eyes a potential run for the White House in 2024.Michael Conroy, Associated Press
Former Vice President Mike Pence
Historically, experience as Veep isn’t a bad launching pad for the presidency. Six former vice presidents went on to become president, including, of course, President Joe Biden, and an additional five won their party’s nomination. For 61-year-old Pence, though, the upside of his time as vice president is more of an open question.
Trump’s 2020 pollster Tony Fabrizio found that if the former president doesn’t run, his supporters gravitate most to Pence, DeSantis and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, so there is plenty of support there. But Jan. 6, when Pence announced Biden as the winner of the 2020 election, complicates things.
“He’s got this tricky position,” said Steven Webster, and assistant professor of political science at Indiana University Bloomington. “I think increasingly the base of the Republican Party is aligned with Donald Trump, and Mike Pence is really seen with hostility by Trump’s base, simply for performing his constitutional duty on the 6th.”
Pence appears to be well aware of the predicament. Earlier this month, he published an op-ed voicing his concern over supposed voting irregularities in the 2020 election, though he didn’t mention any specifically. Trump’s own administration said the election was “the most secure in American history.”
Pence and his wife, Karen, have three children. Pence is a former conservative radio host who served seven terms in the U.S. House before becoming governor of Indiana.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gestures toward a reporter while speaking at the State Department in Washington on Nov. 10, 2020.Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
If 2024 turns into a foreign policy election, the 57-year-old Pompeo is in a strong position with his background as former secretary of state and CIA director.
During Pompeo’s recent speech at the Westside Conservative Club in Urbandale, Iowa, he gave a preview of some of the lines that might end up in his presidential stump speech. He said he’s spent more time with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un than any other American, including basketball star Dennis Rodman, and talked about the threat he sees from China. His mention of the U.S. moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem during his tenure was met with applause.
Before serving in Trump’s Cabinet, Pompeo blasted then-candidate Trump as an authoritarian. Pompeo made the remarks the day of the Kansas caucus in 2016, quoting Trump saying that if he told a soldier to commit a war crime, they would go and do it. Pompeo said the U.S. had spent 7½ years with “an authoritarian president who ignored the Constitution,” referencing former President Barack Obama, and “we don’t need four more years of that.”
Pompeo served three full terms representing Kansas in the U.S. House before joining the Trump administration. He and his wife, Susan, have one child. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy and Harvard Law and served in the U.S. Army.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee March 23, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington.Greg Nash. Associated Press
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas
Cruz, 50, could start out a 2024 campaign in a much stronger position than his first run in 2016, when he came in second. It’s not uncommon for Republicans to select the recent runner up to later be their nominee — which is what happened to Mitt Romney, John McCain, Bob Dole and Ronald Reagan.
A lot has happened to Cruz since 2016. For one, he became an ardent Trump supporter and grew a beard. But Cruz has also learned lessons from his first presidential run. Should he run again, he’d be a much more experienced campaigner with a more finely tuned message, higher name ID, and a carefully maintained donor base, one Republican strategist said.
Cruz has also faced backlash for objecting to President Joe Biden’s Electoral College win. Following the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, seven Democrats asked the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate Cruz and Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., for amplifying claims of election fraud that led to violence. In Texas, the Republican Accountability Project paid for 100 billboards calling on Cruz to resign. Cruz also angered some close to him, like a longtime friend and former campaign chair who denounced him, and his chief spokesperson, who resigned, according to the Dallas Morning News.
Cruz graduated from Princeton and Harvard Law and met his wife Heidi while working for George W. Bush’s campaign in 2000. They have two children. Cruz was caught traveling to Cancun, Mexico, in February while his state was in the middle with a winter storm-related power crisis. He said he did it “to be a good dad.”
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., speaks at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs & Senate Rules and Administration joint hearing on Capitol Hill, Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.Andrew Harnik, Associated Press
Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri
Though controversial, Hawley, 41, is a fundraising machine and he’s quickly made a name for himself. The blowback Hawley faced for objecting to Biden’s Electoral College win included a lost book deal and calls for him to resign from students at the law school where he previously taught. His mentor, former Sen. John Danforth of Missouri, said that supporting Hawley was “the biggest mistake I’ve ever made in my life.”
Still, he brought in more than $1.5 million between Jan. 1 and March 5, according to Axios, and fundraising appeals in his name from the National Republican Senatorial Committee brought in more cash than any other Republican except NRSC Chair Sen. Rick Scott of Florida. Just because you’re toxic in Washington doesn’t mean you can’t build a meaningful base of support nationally.
One Republican strategist compared the possibility of Hawley 2024 to Cruz in 2016. He’s not especially well-liked by his colleagues (when lawmakers were sheltered in a secure room during the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, Hawley spent most of the time in a corner by himself, unacknowledged by the rest of the room, one person who was there told The Wall Street Journal), but he’s built a national profile for himself and become a leading Republican voice opposed to big technology companies.
Hawley and his wife, Erin, have three children. He got his start in politics as Missouri attorney general before being elected to the Senate in 2018. Hawley graduated from Stanford and Yale Law.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Feb. 26, 2021, in Orlando, Fla.John Raoux, Associated Press
Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas
Cotton, 43, has been preparing for a potential presidential run since before the 2020 election even happened, visiting the first-in-the-nation primary state New Hampshire last year to campaign for local Republicans. “I expect I’ll be back to New Hampshire again in the future,” he told Insider last October. The betting site PredictIt currently ranks Cotton alongside Pompeo, Rubio and Hawley.
Cotton represented Arkansas in the U.S. House for two terms before becoming a senator in 2015. His first brush with national prominence came in 2006 when he was serving in Iraq as an Army lieutenant. Cotton sent a letter to the editor at The New York Times criticizing their story about the U.S. terrorist finance tracking program. Cotton called for the paper to be prosecuted for revealing the program, and though his letter wasn’t published in the Times, it was picked up by the conservative blog Power Line, which Cotton copied on his petition to the Times.
Another Cotton opinion piece did later make it into the Times. His controversial 2020 op-ed, headlined “Send In the Troops” about using the military and “an overwhelming show of force” against protesters and rioters following the death of George Floyd, led to the resignation of Times editorial page editor James Bennet. Cotton referenced the op-ed in January after the attack on the Capitol, and said in a statement that those involved “should face the full extent of federal law.”
Cotton and his wife, Anna, have two children. He graduated from Harvard.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., smiles as he waits to speak during the first night of the Republican National Convention from the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, Aug. 24, 2020.Susan Walsh, Associated Press
Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina
Scott showed up in the February Morning Consult/Politico poll as one of a handful of “other” candidates respondents would vote for in 2024.
When Scott, 55, spoke at last summer’s Republican National Convention, he mentioned fairness and equality, and listed the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor among the events that had tested the nation. It was an optimistic speech, and it sounded unlike anything we were used to hearing from the Trump-era Republican Party.
Scott was first elected to the Charleston County Council in 1995. He then served in the South Carolina House of Representatives before being elected to the U.S. House for two terms. In 2013, he became the first African American since Reconstruction to represent a southern state in the U.S. Senate. He is unmarried.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan speaks during a news conference in Annapolis, Md., Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020.Brian Witte, Associated Press
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan
Hogan, 64, is a two-term governor and cancer survivor who underwent chemotherapy while in office. He was declared cancer-free in 2015. A moderate, Hogan told The Washington Post that he saw the 2024 Republican primary as a competition between “10 or 12 or more people fighting in the same lane to carry on the mantle of Donald Trump” and another lane “straight up the middle” that would be much less crowded. Though he said it was too early to say whether he saw himself in that lane, Hogan wrote in his 2020 memoir “Still Standing” that members of Trump’s cabinet approached him about challenging Trump in the GOP 2020 primary.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, meets with Judge Amy Coney Barrett, President Donald Trump’s nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, not shown, on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Sept. 30, 2020.Erin Scott, Associated Press
Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah
A Gallup poll last March found Romney, 74, has a higher approval rating among Democrats than Republicans, so you might figure he doesn’t have a prayer in taking his party’s nomination again. A February Morning Consult poll, though, had Romney polling ahead of Republicans like Pompeo, Cotton and Hawley. So, you’re telling me there’s a chance? Yes, a one-in-a-million chance.
The 2012 GOP presidential nominee and his wife, Ann, have five sons. He graduated from Brigham Young University and Harvard Law. Romney is a former Massachusetts governor, and the first person to be a governor and senator from two different states since Sam Houston, who was governor of Tennessee and a senator from Texas. Romney is this year’s JFK Profile in Courage Award recipient.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., asks a question to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing on the State Department’s 2021 budget on Capitol Hill on July 30, 2020, in Washington.Greg Nash, Associated Press
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida
Like Cruz, Rubio would enter the race with heightened name ID and experience from his 2016 run. One of Rubio’s biggest challenges, though, could be his fellow Floridians. If DeSantis and fellow Sen. Rick Scott run, there could be just one ticket out of Florida, a Republican strategist said.
Rubio, 49, is married to Jeanette Dousdebes and they have four children. He graduated from the University of Florida and University of Miami School of Law and was speaker of the Florida House of Representatives before running for U.S. Senate in 2010.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., speaks during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs & Senate Rules and Administration joint hearing on Capitol Hill, Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, to examine the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.Erin Scott, The New York Times via AP
Sen. Rick Scott of Florida
Scott, 68, is a first-term senator whose biggest asset could be his fundraising. During his 2018 campaign, he raised more than $20 million, in addition to $63 million of his own money he chipped in, according to Politico, and he’s also chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Scott and his wife, Ann Holland, have two children, and he was previously the governor of Florida.
The wild cards
The first Democratic debate back in 2019 had 20 — TWENTY! — candidates, so don’t be surprised if the Republican field is just as large or larger. We could have some more governors or representatives run, or even other nontraditional candidates, like a Trump family member, a Fox News host or a celebrity, like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who’s said he’s “seriously considering” a run. Stranger things have happened.