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Updated May 23, 2023, 8:14pm EDT
politicsNorth America

Rise of the ‘One percenters’: Why so many Republicans think they can crash the Trump/DeSantis party

Allison Joyce/Getty Images
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The Scene

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – Last Thursday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told donors to his super PAC that just “three people” were “credible” presidential candidates: Himself, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden.

On Monday morning, a few hundred South Carolinians tested that theory. A forest of Tim Scott’s “Faith in America” signs had been planted on the Charleston Southern University campus. They traced a path to the Buccaneer Fieldhouse, where volunteers passed out “Great Scott!” signs and “This is Scott Country” stickers. Inside, Scott-lovers shook red-white-and-blue pom-poms when their junior senator made it official.

“I am running for President of the United States of America!” Scott said. He was, he said, “the candidate the far left fears the most,” thanks to his compelling personal story as a successful Black man who resisted progressive narratives about “grievance” and oppression.

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“We need a president who persuades not just our friends and our base; we need a president that persuades,” Scott said, an implicit contrast to certain rivals with a more combative message.

Scott has $22 million, a super PAC, and a Justice League of Republican consultants to help him make that case. Their bet: DeSantis won’t have the broad appeal to beat Trump in a primary, there’s time to introduce GOP voters to someone new, and his support will grow as the early states get to know him.

And he is not alone: Hours before DeSantis is expected to enter the race, more longshot candidates and less-known Republicans see a wider opening for a non-DeSantis candidate to take on Trump.

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“DeSantis has fallen, but I’ve been in there, steady,” former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson told Semafor on Monday, after a Q&A with members of a South Carolina Reaganite Club in Tega City, three hours from the Scott event. “He was wrong on his policies. He was wrong on Ukraine. He was wrong about going after corporate America.”

Hutchinson is one of the growing number of Republicans you might call “1 percenters” who are entering the race or weighing runs. Since joining the contest last month, he has polled between zero and the margin of error, an experience that hasn’t dissuaded Republicans with similar profiles and traditional resumes.

Former Vice President Mike Pence, back in Iowa this week to talk about parental rights, is all but running. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, a billionaire software CEO with little profile outside the badlands, is looking at entering the race this summer; so is ex-Michigan Rep. Mike Rogers, who told Semafor recently that he’s “just found something different than I see in the national polling.”

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But wait — there’s more. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said this week that he’s making a “soul-searching decision” on the race. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is eager to prove himself on a debate stage again. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu has told Semafor that he’s leaning toward a run and will decide by the end of June, insisting that Trump won’t be the nominee.

“If you were going to tell me there’s going to be 10 or 12 people in the race through March and April of next year, yeah, that’s going to be a problem,” Sununu told Fox News last week. “But that’s not going to happen.”

At Scott’s announcement in South Carolina, where ex-U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley had already been running as an alternative to Trump and DeSantis, there was the same relaxed vibe. His campaign had snagged GOP talent that wasn’t interested in either Florida Man’s campaign. His supporters saw plenty of time for a candidate polling at 1 or 2 percent outside of South Carolina to break through, and even more ways for Trump to fade.

“I think we’re at a very different point than we were in 2016,” former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford told Semafor. “Trump was an unknown commodity. The same hopefulness that goes into any campaign, I think, was there. I think people are well-worn on the ups and downs of Donald Trump.”

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David’s view

It’s called a “collective action problem” for a reason. Plenty of Republicans think they’d win a general election that Trump would lose; plenty think DeSantis is unready for the big stage; and some think DeSantis is too similar to Trump to justify rallying behind as an alternative. They’ve also heard from would-be allies who’ve seen Trump win over a divided field before and worry they’re reproducing the same mistakes as 2016.

“If there’s five, six, seven real conservative outsider candidates, Donald Trump will win with a plurality because nobody else will come close,” ex-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters seven months ago, at a post-election meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “If there’s only one or two, it’s a fair fight.”

It’s obvious now there won’t be “one or two” non-Trump candidates. Scott, Haley, Hutchinson, and Vivek Ramaswamy are already running, along with a variety of fringe candidates who have attracted less attention. Publicly, Trump is pleased, posting on Truth Social yesterday that the race was “rapidly loading up with lots of people” and that Scott was “a big step up from Ron DeSanctimonious.”

The wider-than-expected interest in a 2024 campaign is mostly about DeSantis, not Trump. It doesn’t matter that he’d start a race with more than $100 million. The attitude I’ve heard from strategists is that DeSantis is competing for the same voters as Trump — social conservatives and MAGA nationalists — and that there’s a deep, wide pool of economic conservatives and electability-minded Republicans who nobody’s made the sale to. And with the Florida governor off to a creaky start, they’re feeling even less pressure to stand aside.

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Room for Disagreement

Are they right? On the trail with Scott and Hutchinson on Monday, I was struck by how many people who’d taken time out of their day to meet the candidates were already thinking in terms of Trump or DeSantis nominations.

In North Charleston, Michael Creel, 49, said that he’d been a fan of Scott since his 2010 campaign for Congress, recounting the day they’d met at a donut shop. He also called Scott a “viable vice president nominee” who’d make a good pairing with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, because the senator had “a great record” and “a lot of depth in his thinking.”

If polling is to be believed, the two front-runners basically satisfy most GOP voters, who give them each high marks on favorability.  Meanwhile, the campaign for vice president, which no candidate claims to be competing in, is real for many voters — just as it was in 2019, when many Black Democrats said that Kamala Harris should run for the number two job, and got their wish.

And in Tega City, most of the audience questions for Hutchinson came from his right. Would he pardon people arrested for the Jan. 6 riot? (“It would have to be on an individual basis.”) How did he feel about the “indoctrination” of college students? (“Reduce tenure.”) What would he do to stop election theft like the one Kari Lake claimed she saw in Arizona? (“You ought to be able to get a fair hearing in a federal court.”)

This part of the GOP base, a dominant faction in many midterm primary contests, isn’t crying out for more candidates. But some big donors are — Oracle’s Larry Ellison got a shout-out from Scott at his launch rally — and they, along with the candidates and consultants, are still casting around for a savior.

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The View From A Republican Who Isn't Running

Ex-Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan abandoned his idea of a center-right Trump challenge in March, driving away in what turned out to be a one-car parade. “I made the decision to not enter the race in order to avoid a multi-car pileup like 2016 that enabled Trump,” Hogan told The Messenger over the weekend. “A lot of folks seem to have made a different calculation.”

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Notable

  • A little-watched May 1 speech by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin got wide attention 17 days later, after his campaign released a short highlight video. In Axios, that kicked off the umpteenth round of speculation (denied by Youngkin’s team) that he might run for president.
  • In The Bulwark, Charlie Sykes and guests speculate whether Scott’s running a “Potemkin” campaign, taking up some anti-Trump space but posing no challenge that would keep him off the veep list.
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