Just because you aren’t running for president right now doesn’t mean you’re not running for president at all. Anyone watching closely in 2019, and focusing their attention past the 2020 election, could see that the jockeying for 2024 has already begun.
Who had the best 2024 campaign this past year? There’s a lot we don’t know yet, like whether the next presidential campaign will be a contest to succeed a new Democratic administration, or to succeed eight years of Donald Trump. Will the 2020 Democratic primary establish a new consensus inside the party, or leave it trapped in its old arguments? Will the post-Trump Republican Party be desperate for a housecleaning, or will it crave another Trumpist candidate?
We do know that prospective candidates are already thinking that far ahead, trying to carve out distinct profiles for themselves. They haven’t decided when they’re going to run, but they’re wondering if 2024 will be the right year.
Too early, you say? Never. While not obvious at the time, in retrospect, Donald Trump’s 2011 promotion of the baseless conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in America laid the groundwork for his 2016 run. In more traditional fashion, Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address was the effective beginning of his successful 2008 campaign.
So which prospective candidates are winning the race for 2024 in 2019?
Vice President Mike Pence is not the most captivating politician. He was the subject of two books this year that portrayed him as willing to sacrifice principle for ambition (in “American Carnage,” POLITICO’s Tim Alberta noted Pence’s “talent for bootlicking”). He endured speculation that Trump would dump him from the ticket.
But he won a public commitment from Trump, who said last month that Pence “is our man, 100 percent.” Assuming Trump keeps his word (which, granted, should never be assumed), Pence will have something no other Republican candidate in 2024 will have: the title of vice president. That’s no small thing.
Since 1960, nearly every sitting or former vice president who sought his party’s presidential nomination got it. The lone exception was Dan Quayle, an unusually unpopular vice president who dropped out of the 2000 campaign almost as soon as he jumped in. In 1972, Hubert Humphrey ran for the Democratic nomination and lost, but he had previously won it four years earlier, then lost the general election. Joe Biden isn’t a lock in 2020, but his VP status is the biggest reason why he has held the frontrunner position since he entered the race.
There’s plenty of speculation that Mike Pompeo wants to inherit the Trump mantle, but it’s hard to imagine a secretary of state (current or former, depending on how long Pompeo stays in his current job, and whether he runs for an open Senate seat in Kansas) boxing out a vice president in a presidential primary. The only time that’s happened was when Hillary Clinton kept Joe Biden out of the 2016 race, and she was both a former first lady and the 2008 presidential primary runner-up.
Trump has a flair for the dramatic and a distaste for playing by old rules. If anyone is capable of making a capricious decision to replace a vice president, it is Trump. But he didn’t in 2019, and that was a win for Pence.
What to watch for in 2020: No president has booted a VP before a re-election campaign since Franklin D. Roosevelt did it, by dumping John Nance Garner in 1940 and then Henry Wallace in 1944, both at the Democratic National Convention. Might Trump, in the interest of producing his finest reality TV show drama, wait until August’s Republican convention to introduce a new character?
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If you want to be on the inside track for 2024, the next best thing to being vice president is being the subject of rumors about replacing the vice president. Even if you have to crank the rumor mill yourself.
In late August, eight months out of her job in the Trump administration as ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley tweeted: “Enough of the false rumors. Vice President Pence has been a dear friend of mine for years … He has my complete support.” As there were no such widely discussed rumors at the time, Haley’s tweet served only to prompt new rumors. The White House tried to shut down the chatter immediately, directing presidential aide Kellyanne Conway to post on Twitter, “Trump-PENCE2020.” Three months later, the anonymous author of “A Warning” wrote, “On more than one occasion, Trump has discussed with staff the possibility of dropping Vice President Pence” and that “Haley was under active consideration to step in as vice president.” (This is what prompted Trump to say Pence is “our man.”)
Haley attracts attention because, as a former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina governor, she has one the best resumes in the Republican Party. And she is a rare woman of color in a party that struggles mightily to win the votes of women and minorities.
Haley spent 2019 trying to carefully calibrate a distinctive political profile in the embryonic field: a Republican who is loyal to Trump without always agreeing with Trump.
You could see this effort at work during Trump’s summer controversy over Baltimore, when the president tweeted that the city was a “rat and rodent infested mess” that had been failed by its congressman Elijah Cummings (who died in October). At first, Haley defended Trump from charges of racism on her Twitter feed: “Instead of all of this back and forth about who everyone thinks is racist and whose [sic] not, the President just offered to help the people of Baltimore. They should take him up on it.” But a few days later, when Trump posted a sarcastic tweet in response to news of an attempted intrusion of Cummings’ home, Haley posted a scolding reply: “This is so unnecessary.”
Similarly, in Haley’s new book, “With All Due Respect,” she largely defended Trump and revealed that she rebuffed the entreaties of then Chief of Staff John Kelly and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to help them circumvent Trump on matters such as the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement. But she also put a little distance between herself and Trump on foreign relations. She wrote unequivocally, “The truth was the Russia did meddle in our elections.” She said she chided Trump to his face about his infamous Helsinki press conference, telling him that he “made it sound like we were beholden” to Russia. Yet she also said Trump appreciated her candor, and she charitably assessed his overall approach: “He was just trying to keep communication open with Putin, just as he did with Kim Jong Un and Chinese president Xi Jinping.”
Perhaps at some point, her attempts to please Republicans from all camps won’t withstand tough questioning. But for now, she ends 2019 indisputably on the 2024 short list.
What to watch for in 2020: She says Russia meddled in the 2016 elections. Will she call out any Russian meddling in 2020, and risk Trump’s Twitter wrath?
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Senators are notorious presidential wannabes, but the Senate is a flawed presidential launching pad. The longer you’re in it, the less you sound like a normal person. Since the beginning of the modern presidential primary system in 1972, only 5 of the 24 presidential nominees have been sitting senators, and only one became president. That guy, Barack Obama, made sure not to languish in the Senate for too long.
In that one respect, Missouri’s Josh Hawley may be the Republican Barack Obama.
The youngest senator, who just turned 40 in his first year of office, has wowed conservative commentators with a series of speeches and bills that seek to evolve Trump’s crude conservative populism into a governing vision with a sustainable intellectual foundation.
He is not bound by traditional conservative orthodoxies. He’s crafted bipartisan legislation that would constrain the power of giant technology companies. In a November speech, he decried “market worship” and praised labor unions (along with “families and farm cooperatives [and] churches”) for fostering community.
He has not been afraid to step on Republican toes. He questioned whether Trump’s judicial nominee Neomi Rao was truly opposed to abortion rights (though he eventually supported her). He blamed both the “Right and Left” for having “steadily expanded America’s military involvement in every theater of the globe.” Breaking with Trump, he flew to Hong Kong to meet with protesters and denounced the Chinese government for making Hong Kong a “police state.”
“[N]o man is better positioned to shape the future of conservatism,” wrote Charles Fain Lehman at the Washington Examiner. The Daily Wire’s Josh Hammer dubbed Hawley “the most important freshman conservative since Ted Cruz.” Ted Cruz appears to agree, writing in Time magazine: “Hawley embodies the best qualities the movement has to offer: impressive intellectual acumen and populist fire. Combined, these qualities make him a force to be reckoned with.”
Other senators are likely to run, too. Arkansas’ Tom Cotton, whose uber-hawkishness risks being out of place in a post-Trump GOP, rushed to the New York Times op-ed page to embrace the president’s musings about purchasing Greenland. Florida’s Marco Rubio, still trying to recover from his embarrassing showing in the 2016 presidential campaign, broke with libertarian economic principles in December and called for a “pro-American industrial policy.”
But no senator has intrigued Washington’s conservatives as much as Hawley. Of course, being the favorite of the conservative intellectual elite often does not translate into votes from Republican primary voters. But Hawley has productively spent 2019 distinguishing his vision and his priorities from his potential rivals, and that’s no small thing for a person who has been in the Senate for only one year.
What to watch for in 2020: Hawley has drawn attention for winning bipartisan support for some of his proposed technology industry regulations. But next year, can he actually get one of his ideas passed by Congress and signed into law?
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Remember when Republicans were so proud of their governors? That was back in 2014, when Chris Christie, John Kasich, Bobby Jindal and Scott Walker were touted as principled, outside-the-Beltway problem-solvers. Now you can be forgiven if you struggle to name a Republican governor. In the age of Trump, experience seems quaint.
But one new Republican governor spent 2019 enacting popular conservative policies, while also deepening his relationship with President Trump: Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.
During the 2018 campaign for Florida governor, his Democratic opponent, Andrew Gillum, said of DeSantis in a televised debate, “The racists believe he’s a racist.” DeSantis won that bitter contest by 3 points with slightly less than 50 percent of the vote. Today, DeSantis boasts a 65 percent approval rating, including 40 percent approval among Democrats.
Those solid numbers follow a year in which DeSantis whipped the state legislature into passing several talk-radio friendly priorities: banning Florida cities from becoming so-called “sanctuary cities,” permitting teachers to carry guns in school, and expanding the availability of school vouchers that can be used for private education.
And DeSantis has more than one gear. He has flashed an environmentalist streak. He vetoed legislation that would have prevented municipalities from banning plastic straws. He also has taken steps to address climate change, though he generally avoids using the phrase. He hired the state’s first Chief Resilience Officer, tasked with, according to a release from the governor’s office, “preparing Florida for the environmental, physical and economic impacts of sea level rise.” He also named the state’s first Chief Science Officer, who reports to the state’s secretary of environmental protection and works on climate-related impacts.
DeSantis is getting on Trump’s good side with another break from conservative orthodoxy: signing legislation to allow the importation of prescription drugs. The plan requires federal approval, which DeSantis got in December from the Health and Human Services department, after going over the heads of skeptics inside the administration and appealing directly to Trump. Both the governor and the president clearly believe the issue is a political winner in the senior-heavy state.
In an October appearance in Florida, Trump praised DeSantis: “If he was doing a lousy job, I probably wouldn’t have shown up today. But he is doing one of the best jobs in the whole country.” Don’t be surprised if you hear those words in a 2024 campaign ad.
What to watch for in 2020: DeSantis says he wants 2020 to be “the year of the teacher” and has proposed spending $600 million to boost the minimum salary of full-time teachers in Florida. But the state’s teachers union wants $2.4 billion for school improvements and an across-the-board pay hike. Can he pull off a compromise and burnish his pragmatist credentials?
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The slapdash book “Triggered” may be a transparent effort by the president’s oldest son, Donald Trump, Jr., to set himself up as the literal heir apparent. The Republican National Committee may have awkwardly tried to help him along by buying $100,000 worth of copies of the book. But that doesn’t mean the strategy is not working.
While his sister Ivanka has earned a reputation as an ineffectual inside player who is ideologically out of step with her father and the Republican Party, Junior has been a caustic, partisan warrior on social media, and a rock star on the campaign trail for his father and congressional candidates. When speaking at a San Antonio event in October, a shout of “2024!” was heard from the crowd. One attendee told a reporter, “He’s just like his father and I can’t wait to vote for him someday too.”
That Trump voters would be intrigued by Trump Jr. should surprise no one.
If Republican voters had a problem with a man born into wealth styling himself as a man of the people by lobbing verbal bombs at liberals and media figures, then Donald Trump, Sr., wouldn’t be president.
What to watch for in 2020: Will we see Donald Trump, Jr., get a prime-time speaking slot at the 2020 convention? Will we see the crowd launch into a “2024” chant? And if Pence does get dumped from the ticket, would Trump, Sr., replace him with someone who disavows interest in running for the presidency, making it easier to keep the Oval Office in the family?
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The Wild Card
Maybe Junior will have to wait. If the incumbent loses this year, he would remain constitutionally eligible to run in 2024. And the elder Trump is not one to slink quietly away after a defeat.
No president booted out of office after one term has even tried to mount a comeback since Grover Cleveland pulled it off in 1892. Party faithful are quick to bury their defeated, usually making the mere thought of renomination laughable. But Trump may retain a firmer grip on his party’s base than did George H.W. Bush or Jimmy Carter.
If Trump loses in November, some Democrats fear that Trump would unconstitutionally refuse to abandon the White House. But perhaps the greater fear should be held among the Republicans who want to succeed him: that he does follow the constitution but refuses to abandon center stage.
What to watch for in 2020: Donald Trump filed his reelection campaign with the Federal Election Commission on the day of his inauguration in 2017, immediately squelching any doubt that he wasn’t serious about sticking around. If he loses on Nov. 3, 2020, does he file for 2024 on Nov. 4?
The most significant endorsement of 2019 was Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s October endorsement of Bernie Sanders for president. While she can’t take credit for all that followed, since Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Sanders, Elizabeth Warren fell from potential frontrunner back to third place, while Sanders has risen to second place nationally and leads some New Hampshire polls.
Ocasio-Cortez’s move solidified the democratic socialist strain in the Democratic Party, keeping it distinct from Warren’s capitalist brand of progressive populism, and positioned herself to carry the movement’s torch when the 78-year-old Sanders retires. She followed up her endorsement with a tour of Iowa on behalf of Sanders. And Sanders returned the favor with a digital video ad of the tour that at times felt more like a spot for AOC 2024 than for Bernie 2020.
Whether the big-d Democratic Party will want to embrace small-d democratic socialism depends on developments that cannot be foreseen, especially this one: Which ideological faction will the 2020 Democratic nominee represent, and how will that person fare in the general election against Trump? But no matter what happens in 2020, Ocasio-Cortez has made it clear that the democratic socialists are not going anywhere, and that she is prepared to lead them. If she is ready to run in 2024, there will be a movement behind her.
The Bronx-born 30-year old would be just barely constitutionally eligible for the presidency. You have to be 35 when you take office, a bar she would pass in October 2024. But the campaign of Pete Buttigieg, who turns 38 in a couple weeks, has reset the meter for what’s considered old enough to be a serious presidential candidate.
What to watch for in 2020: Ocasio-Cortez has said she will support the Democratic nominee no matter who it is. But if Sanders is not the choice of the party, how much political capital would she be willing to spend in order to corral skeptical socialists behind the Democratic presidential candidate? And if she does stump hard for the nominee, does her reputation as an anti-establishment warrior suffer among the activist left?
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The Big Blue Governors
Andrew Cuomo and Gavin Newsom
The two biggest Democratic states have two governors with big personalities and big aspirations for the White House: New York’s Andrew Cuomo and California’s Gavin Newsom. Each is blessed with Democratic legislatures that helped them to pass a slew of progressive legislation in 2019. Both enacted rent control. Cuomo signed bills offering student financial aid and drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants, and Newsom signed a bill providing health insurance to undocumented low-income adults under 26.
Both also fought directly with Trump. Cuomo approved a bill that would let the U.S. House get its hands on Trump’s state tax returns. Newsom is resisting Trump’s attempt to strip California of its authority to set its own emissions standards for cars, even striking his own regulatory agreement with certain carmakers and refusing to buy cars from those who didn’t oblige.
Despite their achievements, neither is receiving universal love from progressive activists. Cuomo seems to go out of his way to needle the New York left; most recently, his appointees are moving to make it much harder for third parties, including the left-wing Working Families Party, to get on the ballot. Newsom stepped on the toes of some unions by pledging to negotiate with Big Tech companies on how to implement a bill designed to protect gig economy workers. But as the 2020 Democratic primary has shown, angering the activist left isn’t necessarily disqualifying to many Democratic voters.
What to watch for in 2020: Cuomo faces a $6 billion budget gap largely driven by rising health care costs. In a matter of days, he will have to detail how he plans to balance the 2020 budget, and any proposed spending cuts or tax increases could spark new controversies that may complicate his future political plans.
Newsom, meanwhile, faces two huge problems without easy answers: a growing homelessness crisis (about one quarter of the nation’s homeless lives in California) and a bankrupt utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, that has contributed to the state’s wildfire crisis and now shuts off electricity in response to extreme heat and wind in an attempt to prevent future fires. In December, Newsom rejected a PG&E-proposed bankruptcy reorganization plan, and he still must decide whether or not he wants the state to take over the company. Either of these complex issues could undercut Newsom’s attempt to be seen as an effective problem-solver.
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The Big Bluegrass Governor
Andy Beshear won the biggest upset in 2019 politics by ousting incumbent Matt Bevin from the Kentucky governor’s mansion. Bevin was perhaps the most Trump-like governor in the country, in a state that voted for Trump by 30 points. Beshear beat him by focusing on health care, and by opposing Bevin’s attempt to impose stringent work requirements on the state’s expansion of Medicaid.
The new governor began his tenure with a bold executive order, extending voting rights to more than 140,000 ex-felons. (Kentucky imposes a lifetime voting ban on ex-felons, but the governor has the power to issue exemptions.)
Unlike the other red state Democratic gubernatorial success story of the year, Louisiana’s John Bel Edwards, Beshear supports abortion rights, though he backs restrictions on late-term procedures. To win in Kentucky, Beshear didn’t have to run so far to the right that he can’t be viable in a national Democratic presidential primary. At the same time, Beshear can argue that by not running too far to the left—he didn’t back projects like single-payer health insurance and free college—he has proven he can compete on red turf.
Being a red-state governor doesn’t provide a glide path to the Democratic presidential nomination: ask Montana’s Steve Bullock about that. A major challenge is Republican legislators who make it hard for a Democratic governor to build a record of accomplishment. Kansas’ Democratic governor, Laura Kelly, is still cajoling legislators to win support for Medicaid expansion. Michigan’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, had her proposed 45-cent gas tax hike for road repairs rebuffed. If any of the red state Democrats want to run for president in 2024, they will need to find a way to squeeze some successes from their legislatures.
What to watch for in 2020: The Republican-led Kentucky legislature is already looking to put a bill on Beshear’s desk that would prevent cities in the state from becoming “sanctuary cities” that don’t cooperate with the federal government on immigration enforcement. Does Beshear veto that, or ideologically similar legislation, in order to preserve his viability for a 2024 Democratic presidential primary? Or does he capitulate on some conservative issues in hopes of gaining Republican support for the new revenue he needs to pay for his Kentucky agenda?
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The Great Southern Hope
In 2018, Democrats hoped Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Beto O’Rourke in Texas would show how demographic changes and energetically progressive campaigns can paint red states blue. Both won praise for their near-misses, but each handled the new fame differently.
O’Rourke rushed into a presidential campaign and had his political future crushed under the weight of unread dentist-office copies of Vanity Fair. Abrams merely teased a presidential run before throwing her energies into a new voting rights organization. In so doing, Abrams has maintained a national profile without suffering back-to-back losses in quick succession.
Still, Abrams would in all likelihood need to win some political office in the next four years to be considered a plausible 2024 presidential candidate. In 2022, she could run for governor again, likely a rematch against Gov. Brian Kemp. Or, if Democrats don’t win this year’s special election, she could pursue the Senate. But she’d have to win this time. As O’Rourke proved, being a loveable loser only gets you so far.
What to watch for in 2020: Abrams’s organization, Fair Fight Action, is spearheading a “Fair Fight 2020” initiative, intended to thwart voter suppression efforts in 20 battleground states. Will it be effective? In December, Fair Fight Action lost in federal court, at the hands of an Obama-appointed judge, when it tried to stop Georgia from purging inactive voters from the state rolls. She will likely need tangible successes in 2020 if she is to maintain her national profile.