Former US President Donald Trump may be the de-facto leader of the Republican Party since 2016, but he is now shell-shocked as his endorsement in the primaries in the 2024 Presidential elections is neither a foregone conclusion, nor an absolute certainty as there might be other dark horses entering the fray besides the front-runner and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, the most popular GOP candidate.
The November Midterms did not go the way Trump wanted to show his absolute control over the GOP as his handpicked candidates, from Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania to TV anchor Kari Lake in Arizona, have lost to Democratic candidates John Fetterman and Katie Hobbs. If any of Trump's candidates won, it's by a narrow margin.
Trump may not need the media as he has Twitter and Truth Social media platforms with thousands of followers to support him, he also has his own war chest through the Make America Great Again (MAGA) and Save America campaigns presenting a tremendous fund raising capacity even if regular donors and supporters are shying away from him due to the Midterm losses, media reports say.
But what matters most is the GOP nomination and a victory in the primaries. Trump still holds tremendous sway within a strong conservative section of the party, but a victory in the primaries is not certain. The most potential candidates are holding their horses right now.
Closer to nomination , it looks certain that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis will throw in his hat in the primaries backed by donors and media barons such as Rupert Murdoch, once Trump ally, who has thrown in his lot with Santis. Most GOP men feel Santis is the future of the party as he is the shadow of Trump, in Trumpian mould without his legal baggage, political observers and pollsters feel.
Poll strategists opine that while Trump's former VP Mike Pence is certain to oppose his ex-boss in the primaries as he seeks revenge for calling him a "wimp" and his supporters who raised slogans that he ought to be hanged for not overturning the 2020 elections.
Most legal authorities have clarified that a VP does not have powers except under the 25th amendment which is used only in exceptional circumstances to replace the President, in this case overturning the 2020 elections. The Vice President is generally a ceremonial post and crucial to the Senate in his or her powers with the tie-breaking vote.
Who are the dark horses holding their reins back? One is certainly Ted Cruz, the extremely well educated Ivy Leaguer from Texas, who fits the bill and is a strong rival to Santis as he is a better strategist with his experience in the Congress.
Another is Lindsay Graham, a very prominent GOP Senator with experience and maturity who holds considerable sway in the Republican Party. He is the possible spoiler for Kevin McCarthy's election as the next Speaker of the House in 2023, if he does not play court with him. As the nearly three-decade speaker Nancy Pelosi has quit the race.
Coast to coast, Trump has fared badly and did not bring to fruition the much-promised 'Redwave'. Instead, the Blue States held strongly against the Red in the midterms. Republicans are openly claiming that Trump's influence benefited the Democratic candidates. Accordingly, Trump's stock is at an all-time low, his vulnerability to a challenger never more pronounced, as multiple media outlets have commented.
Many Republicans are looking past Trump for a new Presidential candidate. The possible Presidential hopeful is Ron DeSantis. Will he challenge Trump?
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is the clear frontrunner in the race to oust Trump. DeSantis trounced Charlie Crist (by a 20-point margin) in Florida. And DeSantis has quickly become a household, national-level brand name by picking national-level fights. While he may resort to gimmicks, DeSantis challenged the conventional Covid policies, he criticised Disney, he pushed the "Don't Say Gay" Bill, and remarkably, he chartered a flight of immigrants to Martha's Vineyard in Michigan, a Democratic stronghold, to put the Democrats in a tight spot. The immigrants were ultimately shifted to New York and housed in cruise ships.
Looking beyond DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence is at the top of the list. Vice Presidents are naturally well-positioned to run for President. Several modern Presidents served as Vice Presidents before earning the Oval Office: Biden, Bush, Ford, Nixon, LBJ, Truman. Gore and Mondale were former VP's who led their party's ticket but failed to win the general election (Mondale lost to Reagan and Gore lost to Bush).
As VP, Pence has White House experience, national-level name recognition, besides emerging as a Trump alternative. After playing upto Trump as his lackey and sycophant, he parted ways after the January 6 2021 riots, when Pence denounced Trump's behaviour.
Pence is also well-positioned as a Heart lander, as he is from Indiana, a hardcore Christian belt, he represents the Evangelical Right, which is a substantial portion of the right-wing constituency; evangelical votes are valuable.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz's stock has fallen a bit. But, in 2016, he was one of the favorites to earn the GOP ticket. Cruz is the most recognisable figure in the Republican Party. But Cruz's capitulation to Trump in 2016 - after Trump viciously disrespected Cruz's wife - has left him with a strange sort of vibe, media reports point out.
Memory is still strong with voters of Cruz's little trip to Cancun, while Texas was freezing and millions of Cruz's constituents were without heat or power. It didn't go down well. Cruz has always suffered from a likeability problem: But a grown salt and pepper beard seems well designed to counter. Cruz will have a tough time grabbing the nomination from either Trump or DeSantis, Republican strategists feel.
What about Lindsay Graham?
Graham, a prominent GOP figure for years, is still a beta, Republican poll strategists feel. He latches on to the alpha, bends the knee, and rides the coattails. He did it with John McCain when McCain was at the top of the GOP ticket. Graham did it with Trump, too. With Trump, Graham's reversal from criticising Trump to acting as Trump's chief defender was whiplash-inducing, media reports recall.
And Graham's latest theatrics about outlawing abortion after 15 weeks didn't hit well even among the right wingers. Graham won't be able to get past Trump or DeSantis, strategists feel.