LAS VEGAS: Tensions bubbled to the surface at the first major gathering of possible Republican 2024 presidential candidates this weekend as party members voiced a desire to move on from Donald Trump, though even his detractors wondered if that would be possible.
Fresh off a disappointing performance in midterm elections that saw them win a smaller-than-expected majority in the US House of Representatives and fail to take control of the Senate, Republicans worried aloud about the former president’s prospects.
“If Donald Trump is the face of the Republican Party, it’s always going to cost us a couple of (percentage) points,” said Eric Levine, an attorney and Republican fundraiser from New York.
Speaking at a Las Vegas meeting of the influential Republican Jewish Coalition, where party donors and fundraisers gathered to size up potential 2024 contenders including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence and former US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, Levine told Reuters the midterms showed Trump remains deeply unpopular with a majority of voters.
“Donald Trump is the only Republican that would lose” in 2024, he said.
The last week had made it clear that the defeated former president was likely to remain in the spotlight in the months ahead.
Trump launched a fresh campaign for the Republican nomination on Tuesday, before the final midterm votes have even been tallied. On Friday, Attorney General Merrick Garland named a special counsel to lead the federal investigations into Trump’s attempts to overturn his 2020 election defeat and removal of classified documents from the White House.
And Saturday, Twitter owner Elon Musk gave Trump back access to the social media account that helped power his rise to the presidency and served as his main cudgel to bludgeon opponents.
Many in the crowd were clearly enthused: Even though Trump was the only candidate to address the crowd by video, his speech was marked by several standing ovations in the crowded hotel ballroom.
“We have to stay strong and we have to fight and frankly, you better hope a certain person wins the election in 2024,” Trump said to cheers.
The man who could pose the largest threat to Trump, DeSantis, also received a fervent response as the final featured speaker on Saturday night.
“We have a lot more to do, and I have only begun to fight,” DeSantis told the crowd without elaborating on his future plans.
He talked up his resounding re-election win earlier this month, where he beat his Democratic opponent by almost 20 points, arguing he can pull in nontraditional Republican voters.
But DeSantis made no mention of Trump. Pence likewise treaded carefully, boasting about the accomplishments of their administration and avoiding direct criticism of his former boss.
“STOP BEING AFRAID”
Others, including former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, were more disparaging of the one-term president.
“It is time to stop whispering,” Christie told the gathering. “It is time to stop being afraid of any one person.”
Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was fraudulent had “diminished” the party, he said.
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, another potential presidential candidate, said a “course correction” was needed, while Mike Pompeo, who served as Trump’s secretary of state, took a jab at Trump, a former reality TV star, when he said, “personalities and celebrity just aren’t going to get it done.”
Haley implored the party to elect a new generation of leaders and said she was seriously considering a run.
“We’re behind the times and we have to be honest with ourselves,” Haley said.