Donald Trump definitely isn't scaring his White House rivals away
David is a Political Reporter for Semafor, joining us from the Washington Post. Shelby is a Political Reporter for Semafor, joining us from the Daily Caller. Sign up for the daily Principals newsletter to get our insider’s guide to American power.
LAS VEGAS, Nevada — Donald Trump got applause talking about his record at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual gathering. But then the crowd also cheered when Nikki Haley said she’d “look at” running for president. And they jumped to their feet when Ron DeSantis said he was “just getting started.”
It was the first showcase event of the 2024 election cycle, and Trump’s appearance alongside Republicans who might challenge him for the nomination revealed how last week’s midterm elections had weakened him. Some rivals blamed him personally for losing seats; others, like Haley, absolved Trump of blame but described a GOP comeback that the 45th president couldn’t lead.
The crowd wandering the Venetian Hotel were torn between backing a president whose accomplishments they prized and looking for something new — just like the broader party outside of the casino walls.
“We’re all confused…we’re trying to figure it out,” one attendee told Semafor. “The GOP is unsettled,” another said.
But Trump isn’t down and out yet, nor was he the only story at the RJC gathering, a high-profile event starting off the 2024 swing with a guest list that includes prominent conservative Jewish donors. Here’s what we came away from this weekend’s gathering.
Trump isn’t scaring his rivals away (other than Rick Scott)
Haley and DeSantis were joined by at least six other Republicans who have made moves toward a White House run or been urged to do so – former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, Sen. Ted Cruz, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and outgoing Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.
None of them waved off the speculation.
“I don't know what the future holds for my family or yours,” said Pence.
“The next time we’re together, we could be on a stage, multiple podiums — who knows?” said Pompeo.
“The reason we’re losing is because Donald Trump has put himself before everybody else,” said Christie.
Only Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who’d run anti-Biden ads in Iowa in 2020 and appeared at a New Hampshire GOP fundraising dinner in 2021, clearly ruled out a 2024 presidential bid.
Trump’s record as president was praised again and again, but Republicans were no longer giving him all the credit for what worked. Pence, whose memoir was released the same day as Trump’s announcement, ran down the highlights – tax cuts, crushing ISIS, accords between Israel and Arab nations – but made himself and other Republicans larger figures in the story. Pence even pointed out Cruz in the Friday night Shabbat dinner crowd and thanked him for helping confirm Trump’s three Supreme Court justices.
As for the crowd? When the hosts of the conservative podcast Ruthless asked the audience who it favored in 2024, the applause for DeSantis was twice as loud as the applause for Trump. But aggressive denunciations of the ex-president by name — which Christie has explicitly encouraged more of — were met with muted responses.
“I'm speaking truth to power,” Hogan told Semafor after taking on Trump directly in his speech on Friday. “I wasn't there to just tell them what they wanted to hear. I told them what I thought they needed to hear.”
A crowded field could also be an advantage for Trump, RJC board member and former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters on Saturday. If there are only one or two anti-Trump candidates, he said, then “it's a fair fight.”
There are two clashing theories of how to expand the party
Republican policy platforms are still a bit mushy, but there’s a clear split between 2024 hopefuls amping up partisan conflict to juice the base versus those looking to softer pitches to bring in moderates.
“When you stand up for what's right, when you show people you're willing to fight for them, they will walk over broken glass barefoot to come and vote for you,” DeSantis said in his speech touting his blowout re-election win. “And that's exactly what they did for me.”
Cruz was on the same wavelength, telling the RJC crowd that Democrats had out-performed expectations by delivering for their “left-wing” base, and Republicans had under-performed by promising little and cutting bipartisan deals.
“I think Senate Republicans as a body did not fight nearly enough over the last two years,” Cruz told reporters after the speech. “I was pressing for us to do more, but in the body in which I serve, our leadership decided that it was a better strategy to give in to the Democrats on bill after bill after bill.”
But that wasn’t how everyone read the 2022 results. Haley talked at length about her immigrant upbringing and the role she’d taken to put body cameras on cops; Hogan talked about winning “suburban women, Asians, Hispanics, young voters” and Black voters by “growing a tent” and giving them a reason to vote Republican. Both of them pointed out that the GOP had lost the popular vote for president in seven of the last eight elections, a roundabout shot at Trump and his insistence that he’d left behind a GOP that could win everywhere.
Abortion’s the new elephant in the room
In Las Vegas, there was no agreement on how the party’s next nominee should tackle abortion ahead of the first presidential election since the end of Roe v. Wade.
Trump declined to even bring up the topic directly, saying only that Democrats over-performed expectations because a “specific issue,” which he did not name, had driven up turnout.
“It was unfortunate, because in many ways, it was such a great achievement,” Trump said, talking (or not talking) about perhaps his single biggest policy legacy as president. “There was a specific issue that made it more difficult, but it was the right thing.”
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz told Semafor that “federalism” would sort out legal abortion rights. “In bright blue states like California and New York, you're going to continue seeing unlimited abortion on demand,” he said. “I wish that weren't the case, but that's what the citizens of those states want.”
Pence celebrated the judicial appointments that had created a “new beginning for life,” and told the crowd that it “must not relent until we restore the sanctity of life to the center of American law in every state in the land.” But in an off-campus interview with a Wisconsin TV station, Pence said that while “talking about a minimum standard on abortion at the national level is useful,” the issue was “likely to be resolved one state after another."