With fewer than 40 days until the Iowa caucuses, leading Senate Republicans believe the 2024 GOP presidential primary is already over, with former President Donald Trump sitting comfortably atop the polls and his rivals more interested in squabbling with each other.
The party’s presidential debate in Alabama this week yielded the poorest television ratings of the primary cycle so far, and the four candidates who ended up on the stage made little progress in distinguishing themselves from likely runner-up status. They mostly stuck to feuding with each other, name-calling, and even sharing wild conspiracy theories popular on the far right.
“The cake is baked,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s top allies on Capitol Hill, told HuffPost on Thursday about the state of the presidential race.
“I think this is over,“ added first-term Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), another Trump backer. “The sooner you get to the [GOP’s 2024] convention the better, but I think he’s got the nomination in hand.”
Even some of Trump’s biggest critics are cleareyed about the reality facing the Republican Party: Trump is poised to once again become their presidential standard-bearer despite being criminally charged over his handling of classified information and his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, culminating in the violent Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
“I think it was over before it began,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), adding that former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley “has a shot, but a very long shot” at snagging the nomination.
“I think Trump is the presumptive nominee and has been from day one,” Romney said.
It always felt inevitable that the party’s 2024 nominating contest would be the primary that wasn’t. Trump’s decision not to participate in the presidential debates starved his rivals of political oxygen, insulating himself from potential missteps and allowing them to go after each other instead.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the favorite of establishment Republicans on Capitol Hill, stunned everyone by dropping out months before voters even headed to the polls in Iowa, a state that he’d hoped to win with his evangelical bona fides. And the campaign of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, which once looked like a juggernaut, floundered under daily assaults by Trump and mistakes by an awkward candidate who never could quite find his footing in the race.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has mounted the loudest arguments against Trump and the risk that he poses to democracy should he be elected to the White House again. But Christie is hated by the GOP primary electorate, and it’s likely just a matter of time before he, too, pulls the plug.
Meanwhile, Haley, a former United Nations ambassador, has impressed many in the party with her debate performances and has started to win over anti-Trump donors, but her incremental climb in polling averages has not been nearly enough to catch up with Trump. And entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy seems much more intent on becoming president of the QAnon Reddit boards than commander in chief.
The fact of the matter is that Republican voters still love Trump, and GOP elected officials are slowly coming to grips with the fact that they may need to get on board with his campaign sooner or later.
Sen. Katie Britt (R-Ala.), at age 41, is the youngest Republican woman to ever serve in the Senate. Despite a thoroughly establishment background — she was chief of staff to former Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and led the influential Business Council of Alabama before winning her seat in 2022 — this week she became the latest senator to back Trump’s 2024 bid, offering yet another sign of which way the political winds are blowing in the GOP.
Britt is a rising star within her party, and has even been mentioned as a possible face of the GOP’s future after Trump. But on Wednesday, the day of the GOP debate in her state, Britt endorsed Trump by citing his administration’s economic record and his dominance in the polls, adding that “his insurmountable lead only continues to grow as primary dates draw closer.”
Asked Thursday why she backed Trump over someone like Haley, who has suggested that the GOP should have a younger nominee, Britt declined to comment.
Still, some Trump-skeptical Republicans in the Senate continue to hold on to the idea that he can be stopped.
Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, said he was “not ready to draw” the conclusion that the primary is basically over. Thune, who had endorsed Scott, told Punchbowl News this week that he has been “impressed” with Haley’s debate performances.
Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), who had previously expressed interest in DeSantis, said she felt that presidential polls “feel less reliable.”
“To me, it doesn’t feel locked down,” Lummis added of the GOP race. “I do think there could be an Iowa surprise, but I don’t know if it will carry on past Iowa, that’s the thing.”
And Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), a Trump critic and a physician, suggested the presidential race could be upended in either major party by a surprise medical issue with Trump or with President Joe Biden.
“If I said that a 78-year-old or an 82-year-old has a stroke tomorrow, would you be surprised?” Cassidy asked HuffPost, referring to how old the two candidates will be next year.
“If I said they either respectively show signs of mental decline or is significantly obese with poor dietary habits, would you think they would be more or less likely to have a stroke?” he said.
“Now, I’m just speaking as a doctor,” Cassidy added. “This is the unknowns that we know, but to channel my inner [former Defense Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld: There are unknowns that are unknown.”