ATLANTA, Ga – It was Erick Erickson’s party, and Donald Trump was not invited.
Most of the Republicans who’ll head to Wednesday’s debate in Milwaukee made it to The Gathering, an annual conservative conference organized by the Georgia radio host and former Red State editor. Erickson, who barred Trump from “the stage I paid for” eight years ago after he made misogynist comments about Megyn Kelly, didn’t bother negotiating with Trump’s team.
Instead, he sat down with Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, Tim Scott, Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, and Chris Christie for friendly 45-minute interviews spread across Friday and Saturday that focused on policy and general election strategy. This, he said, was what conservatives were starved for, as the mainstream media obsessed over the GOP front-runner and his trials — literally and figuratively.
“We needed to hear from all the candidates, and we didn’t need to hear about President Trump,” Erickson said after his last interview wrapped. “We know what they’re going to say. We know what he’s going to say.”
The Trump-free field promised to win “economic independence from China” (Ramaswamy), fire Fed chair Jerome Powell (Pence), and kill drug traffickers “stone cold dead” (DeSantis). There wasn’t much disagreement on policy, though Christie said any Republican who wouldn’t confront entitlement spending was being dishonest with voters.
Each candidate got time to deliver the hits from their stump speeches, some personal stories, and the basics of how they’d clean up after President Biden.
Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts, a conference speaker, told Semafor during an interview at the conference that every candidate he’d spoken to had committed to shrink federal agencies and hire more conservative staffers; each wanted a reboot of a Trump-era order that weakened many civil service protections.
“We need to clean out all the political appointees so we can restore confidence and integrity for the American people,” Scott said on Friday.
It took some work to keep Trump away in spirit as well as in person. When Chris Christie walked onstage, Erickson steered their conversation away from the former president’s indictment in Fulton County, and his upcoming arraignment in a courthouse ten miles from where they were sitting.
“I don’t want to talk about that RICO case,” he told Chris Christie; he wanted to ask about Atlanta-area protesters who were being charged with domestic terrorism after damaging the construction of a police training center. (“This is what the federal prosecuting system was made to deal with,” said Christie.)
Shelby and David's View
Candidates were grateful for the opportunity to inhabit a Trumpless world, even if it was just one day. The former president’s opponents have become increasingly frustrated with answering questions about the front-runner — and the fact that those questions sometimes steamroll entire interviews that were scheduled to discuss their own campaigns.
Erickson gave them a breath of fresh air. But is it realistic for any of Trump’s rivals to avoid discussing him and convince viewers at home that they’re superior, especially while they keep praising his presidency? Haley told Erickson that “not one” voter had brought up Trump at any of her campaign town halls: “Not one of them are asking me about Trump, not one of them are asking why you’re running against him.”
But it’s Republican voters, not the easily-bashed media, putting Trump in the middle of this primary. A Cygnal poll, commissioned by Gov. Brian Kemp’s PAC and shared at The Gathering, showed Trump held an overwhelming lead among Georgia Republicans, with 53% support. DeSantis trailed at 15%, and the rest of the field followed in single digits. After he left the stage, Christie spent 10 minutes talking to reporters about Trump, insisting that he would lose Georgia and the presidency because of his indictments and efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
“He’s afraid of defending his record,” Christie said. “And if I had his record, I’d be nervous about showing up, too. Let’s face it, guys – by Wednesday he is gonna be out on bail in four different jurisdictions.”
Even as Erickson’s goal was to present Trump’s opponents in a non-Trump-focused setting, the reality is that each still has to distinguish themselves from Trump to beat him. To do so means addressing the former president directly — not pretending he doesn’t exist.
With Trump likely offstage at next week’s Republican debate, they’ll get another chance to try and step out of his shadow. It’s just as possible they end up taking on each other, which they started to do in Atlanta: Christie told the crowd that he was “not giving away Taiwan to China,” a reference to a recent interview where Ramaswamy said America’s interest in Taiwan ended when “we have achieved semiconductor independence.” Ramaswamy patronized DeSantis as just one of “many excellent governors across the country,” adding that he’s part of the “deep bench” that he could work with — when he won the presidency.
The View From Republican Voters
Voters at The Gathering talked a lot like Erickson: They wanted to meet the Trump alternatives, the ones that might appeal to voters exhausted by the former president. As Ramaswamy talked with reporters, Ed Metzger, 66, applauded his answers and said that the upcoming debate could introduce more people to him.
“Trump doesn’t need to be there, because he’d be the center of everything,” said Metzger. “Let’s take him out of there, and let’s find out who the best candidates are who are not Trump. We might have found him. This might be the guy.”
Room for Disagreement
Patti Davis, daughter of Ronald Reagan, suggested in The New York Times that the news and political actors look away from Trump. “It’s not easy ignoring someone who keeps barreling onto the world stage, determined to create chaos and eviscerate the democracy we depend on, but it is often the only remedy that will work,” Davis wrote.