WASHINGTON – Republicans this week are focused squarely on their convention's star, President Donald Trump, and securing his reelection in November. But there's also plenty of angling for what — or who — comes next.
Beyond the speeches, the spin and the stagecraft, the Republican National Convention is casting light on the early maneuvering that is already underway to determine the future of the party after Trump and who will emerge as its 2024 nominee.
“There’s a lot happening behind the scenes already," said Republican strategist Alex Conant, who worked for the 2016 campaign of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Still, he said the contest won't begin in earnest until after November, when the electorate decides whether Trump will go down in history as a one-term fluke or the founder of a new Republican Party.
The convention lineup includes a long list of potential future candidates, most notably Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and ambassador to the United Nations, who spoke Monday night, and Vice President Mike Pence, who will speak Wednesday. Also allotted time slots: Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Florida Sen. Rick Scott and Donald Trump Jr.
Many are expecting a 2024 repeat of 2016, which drew a massive field of senators, governors and former party officials — along with a reality TV star few took seriously at the time.
This time, “Mike Pence and Nikki Haley are, by far, the two greatest fan favorites out there,” says Scott Walker, the former governor of Wisconsin and himself a 2016 candidate. "There’s others out there, but nobody else is even close in that stratosphere.”
Much will depend on whether Trump secures a second term. If he loses, it could open the door to critics like Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a moderate who voiced alarm at Trump's handling of the coronavirus and recently wrote a book and launched a new national advocacy group promoting “bipartisan, common-sense solutions.”
On the other end of the spectrum is Pence, who has spent years serving as Trump's most loyal solider. His allies are keenly aware that the former Indiana governor's political future will hinge on whether Trump wins in November, and they have been laser-focused on that goal.
Pence has embarked on an aggressive campaign schedule that has included 73 trips to more than two dozen states since October. And he has been holding calls with conservative groups like the Susan B. Anthony List and Heritage Foundation, in addition to sitting for a whopping 152 regional interviews.
If Trump does win in November, it is unclear how another four years would affect Pence's standing and whether he has the charisma or star power to carry the president's base on his own. One donor has quipped that Pence carries all of Trump’s baggage without carrying many of Trump's supporters.
Pence in a Fox News interview sidestepped a question about whether he's weighing a 2024 White House run. “All my focus is getting this president reelected for four more years,” Pence said.
At the same time, buzz has been growing about Haley, the rare official who managed to emerge from the Trump administration with her reputation intact and arguably lifted. Since her departure, she has been trying to keep a careful balance, maintaining some independence from the president while not directly drawing his ire.
In her convention speech Monday night, Haley gave an unabashed endorsement of the president while spending time introducing herself to viewers.
“I am the proud daughter of Indian immigrants. They came to America and settled in a small Southern town,” she said. “My father wore a turban. My mother wore a sari. I was a brown girl in a black and white world.”
That background could make for a compelling candidate at a moment when the American electorate is getting younger and more diverse. Haley also would be able to make the case to voters that she has the needed background as a chief executive and on national security.
“Regardless of the outcome of the election, conservatives and Republicans are going to regard Nikki Haley as one of the most talented messengers for the cause anywhere across the country,” said Rob Godfrey, who served as a spokesperson for Haley when she was South Carolina governor.
Since stepping down as U.N. ambassador, Haley has been a frequent presence on the stump for incumbent Republican Senate candidates in battleground states. Among those she’s campaigned for: Iowa’s Joni Ernst, North Carolina's Thom Tillis and Colorado's Cory Gardner.
“This opportunity has given her a chance to make a lot of friends,” said Godfrey. “Those friends are activists in early primary states. Those are friends with donors all around the country that she can call on going forward for whatever she may want to do.”
That's the kind of work would-be candidates have been doing behind the scenes: building relationships, getting to know donors, conservatives and early-state leaders, and trying to build their national profiles.
But whether the president wins or loses, Trump will loom large, having transformed the party from the mold of Ronald Reagan and the Bush family to a nationalist, populist movement fueled by white resentment.
“You can’t take the Wayback Machine to four years ago and pick up the policies of four years ago. You also can’t say you’re just going to do the opposite of what Trump does," said James Carafano, a national security analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Historian Douglas Brinkley said he sees little chance of Trump moving out of the spotlight whenever he vacates the office.
“Donald Trump will never go gentle into the night," he said. “Just because he loses doesn't mean that that's the end of the Trump phenomenon in American politics. And it will be very hard for a Republican to get the nomination without Trump's endorsement in 2024,” unless, he said, Trump winds up so mired in legal trouble that he becomes a pariah.
Washington, for its part, is preparing for another round of intrigue.
“Maybe the public isn’t ready for it, but certainly junkies in both the media and politics are ready," said Walker. “They don’t want to look past 2020, but they’re excited.”
Madhani reported from Chicago. Associated Press writer Steve Peoples in New York contributed to this report.