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Trump GOP Challengers: What are They Thinking?

Updated: Jun 8, 2023

A fly lands on Mike Pence's head
Former Vice President Mike Pence has filed as a Republican presidential candidate. The fly will be along for the ride.

When you look at the roster of Republican politicians who have summoned the courage to challenge Donald Trump for the GOP presidential nomination, you have to wonder. Exactly what are these Trump GOP challengers thinking? What makes them think they can win? What makes them believe they should become President?

Trump's former vice president, Mike Pence, is a case in point, as The Washington Post's Paul Waldman points out. (subscription required).

Here's what Waldman writes at the top of his piece:

"There’s no mystery about whether Pence could overcome former president Donald Trump and seize the leadership of his party. The mystery is why he thinks he has any chance at all.

"Pence is a photo negative image of contemporary political attractiveness, simultaneously repelling Republicans, Democrats and independents. In his bewildering belief that he might become president, he demonstrates the power of ambition to cloud the mind of even the most experienced politician.

"Even if Pence reminds you of a regional manager at a midsize Indiana ball-bearing manufacturer, it’s easy to see how he could convince himself that he ought to be president. His résumé has all the traditional markers on the way to the White House: a stint in Congress, then a term as governor, then his time as vice president."

The bottom line is that Pence is just another boring, old, White politician who was nothing more than a Trump lapdog until he rejected his boss' demands to not certify Joe Biden's election. It wasn't that he didn't want to; he just realized he didn't actually have the power to do that. All that got him was scorn from Trump and "Hang Mike Pence" chants by the defeated president's supporters who overran the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2020.

But despite the fact that Trump incited those who threatened his life, Pence refuses to defy Trump "After years of sycophancy toward his boss that was embarrassing — even by the standards of the lickspittles with whom Trump has always surrounded himself," writes Waldman.

Veteran GOP observers believe that if anyone is to beat Trump in the primaries, they will have to excite the GOP base like Trump does.

"In a general election, Pence would offer voters the worst of all possible worlds: an uncharismatic candidate advocating the GOP’s unpopular policies. Voters are not clamoring for someone to tell them why we need to cut taxes for the rich and outlaw abortion, delivered in the tone of a stepdad explaining why you’re being grounded for the rest of the school year," Waldman writes.

However, in his announcement speech June 7, Pence summoned the gumption to sharply criticize Trump for his actions on January 6, which he called "a tragic day in the life of our nation," saying Trump's effort to pressure the then vice-president to throw the election his way was "reckless and endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol."

“President Trump also demanded that I choose between him and the Constitution. Now voters will be faced with the same choice. I chose the Constitution, and I always will,” said Pence.

Finally, some brave words from Pence. However, they are unlikely to endear him to the MAGA crowd that appears unwaveringly loyal to Trump.

But what are the other candidates thinking?

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is trying to "out Trump" Trump on core GOP issues like abortion and critical race theory, continues to plummet in the polls to the point where he's now more than 30 points behind. DeSantis clearly is not providing the excitement that Waldman says is needed, and a veteran GOP lobbyist, Marty Irby, of Capitol South, LLC, expressed that sentiment today in an interview for an upcoming Lean to the Left podcast (set to stream June 29.

Essentially, said Irby, DeSantis is boring and is failing to generate the excitement that a challenger must have to overtake Trump.

“These individuals should thank President Trump for their careers and their relevance,” Steven Cheung, a Trump campaign spokesman, said of former campaign staffers who are now working for other candidates. “This week’s additions to the presidential race are joining only because Ron DeSanctimonious has proven to be an inept campaigner and his opponents smell blood in the water,” said Cheung.

Besides Pence and DeSantis, announced GOP candidates include former New Jersey governor and Trump supporter Chris Christie, who is given little chance of winning the nomination but intends to use the platform to block Trump.

That's a similar objective to that of former Rep. Liz Cheney, who spent her time on the January 6 investigating committee chastising Trump and has said she will do whatever it takes to deny the former president his party's nomination. Most knowledgeable GOP observers believe Cheney would have zero chance of winning the Republican presidential nod and that her only opportunity would be to run as an independent.

Meanwhile, South Carolina has two candidates in the GOP presidential sweepstakes: U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and former Gov. Nikki Haley, who served as UN ambassador under Trump. While it's still early, neither has stirred much excitement and both are rumored to be positioning themselves as potential vice-presidential running mates with Trump.

Other lesser lights who apparently believe that somehow lightening will strike and they may some day reside in the White House include:

  • Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin who has not yet announced, but who is talking and acting like a potential candidate who might take up the slack if DeSantis drops by the wayside.

  • New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, also unannounced but considered a possibility, even though he is running behind other candidates in polls within his own state.

  • North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, a wealthy business-minded conservative, who's announcement is said to be imminent.

  • Vivek Ramaswamy, a political neophyte who founded the biopharmaceutical company Roivant Sciences. He registered 4 percent in the most recent Fox News poll, tied with Nikki Haley and just a point behind Pence.

  • Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who as governor demanded that Republicans who tried to overturn the 2020 presidential election and spread Trump's "Big Lie" about the election not be put in positions of leadership. He accused Trump of dividing Republicans and said his election conspiracies were a "recipe for disaster." Hutchinson was succeeded as governor by former Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who called for a new generation of leadership when she gave the Republican response to President Biden's State of the Union address. Who knows, maybe she also thinks she has the right stuff to become president.

All of this is incredibly exciting, right? Another tease from the Marty Irby interview: New blood is badly needed in the Republican Party.

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