Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota is backing his home-state governor Doug Burgum’s long shot bid for president. But he believes Donald Trump will be the nominee.
Robert Gleason, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, attended a fundraiser this month for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Yet he too expects Trump to win the primary.
And Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a veteran party strategist and ally of House GOP leaders, says he thinks the former president will probably have the nomination locked up early next year.
“I just don’t see a path for anybody that’s not Donald Trump right now,” Cramer said.
With less than four months until the first Republican nominating contest in Iowa, many elected Republicans such as House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), state and local GOP officials and party operatives are saying more directly that they expect Trump will lead the Republican ticket next year. Even among those who oppose him, some say they are moving toward that conclusion.
Facing 91 criminal charges across four indictments, Trump has built a wide lead this year over an array of rivals who have yet to challenge his dominance in the party. He has portrayed himself as the victim of a politically motivated legal battle, a narrative that has resonated with GOP voters. Prosecutors involved in his cases have said they are acting in accordance with the law, not politics.
How Trump’s legal problems would factor into a general election is a variable that worries some Republicans. In some parts of the party, including factions of the U.S. Senate and among some wealthy donors, there is less palpable enthusiasm for Trump. And while many in the party have all but concluded Trump will be their nominee, some see a more fluid race and are still optimistic that one of his GOP rivals can catch him with a lengthy campaign stretch yet to come.
“I’m still holding out hope that my fellow Republicans want to throw their support behind someone who has personal integrity, respects the rule of law, aims to unite rather than divide people and actually knows how to do the job well,” said Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.). “Donald J. Trump’s signature professional achievement is as a reality television star and he’s lacking in every personal quality that I, and I think every other Republican, should want in a presidential nominee. Moreover he is the least likely to win a general election.”
Such tensions in the party and Trump’s separation from the rest of the presidential pack will be on display this week. While his primary rivals are debating each other in California on Wednesday, Trump, who has opted not to participate in these events, will be in Michigan, a key general election battleground, where he plans to give a speech.
Bullishness on Trump’s prospects extends to the highest levels of GOP leadership on Capitol Hill. McCarthy said in a Fox News interview that aired last weekend, “I think he will be the nominee.” In late June, McCarthy told CNBC that he didn’t know if Trump would be the strongest nominee. Trump was angered by the remark and McCarthy backtracked. Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.), a close McCarthy ally, said the “Speaker has a very strong understanding of what the Republican electorate wants and it’s clear in public opinion surveys that Trump is the person to beat.”
A Trump adviser said that Trump and McCarthy had not spoken in the days since the speaker’s Fox News interview. The adviser and another campaign official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak more candidly about the race, suggested the former president isn’t taking the primary for granted, but noted that he is gearing up for a rematch with President Biden. An average of national polls over the past month shows a dead heat, with Trump and Biden tied at 46 percent among registered voters.
Gleason, who ran the state party in Pennsylvania when Trump won the state in 2016 — becoming the first Republican to do so in 28 years — said the criminal indictments against Trump had convinced his wife, who was ready to move on from Trump, to support him again. He attended an event with DeSantis, who is a distant second to Trump in most polls. He said the Florida governor told him he could overtake Trump in Iowa, but Gleason is skeptical.
“I’ve been in politics a long time and I’ve never seen anyone like this,” Gleason said of Trump’s hold on the party. “We have a plethora of really good candidates, but Donald Trump is, gee whiz, the man for all seasons.”
Iowa state Rep. Brent Siegrist, who has endorsed DeSantis, said that voters in the state are “willing to look for somebody else but nobody is coming to the forefront.”
“If you had to bet the house, you’d bet on Trump,” Siegrist said. Trump could still be vulnerable if the field narrows, he said, “but right now you’re asking me, do I think he wins Iowa? I do. I don’t think that’s great, but I think that’s what’s likely to happen.”
Nationally, Trump is polling around 60 percent among Republican voters, but in Iowa and New Hampshire he’d hovered just below 50 percent, giving Republicans searching for an alternative some glimmers of hope that he’s beatable.
But Jason Roe, a GOP strategist in Michigan, said he’s been “pretty underwhelmed” by the rest of the primary field, and while he thinks there’s still a chance for someone else to break out, acknowledged that the “conventional wisdom” among Republicans is that Trump is likely to win.
“Given how strong he ended up being in ’16, it’s hard not to look at the contours of the race and say he’s even better off than he was eight years ago,” Roe said.
Trump’s opponents have attacked him on a range of fronts, with no one message appearing to break through sharply with Republican voters. DeSantis said in a recent interview with ABC News that Trump is a different candidate than he was in 2015 and that his recent criticism of a six-week abortion ban in Florida was a “big mistake.” DeSantis has also questioned Trump’s electability, telling CBS News that he is a “dealbreaker” for too many voters. Meanwhile, former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley called Trump “the most disliked politician” in the country at the last GOP debate. But some polling in recent months has shown that Trump is seen by Republicans as the best general election candidate.
Outside groups and donors that are seeking to stop Trump from clinching the nomination have yet to coalesce around a single alternative candidate. Despite entering the race with high expectations, DeSantis has slid in recent polls and is increasingly focused on Iowa.
Kevin Madden, a GOP strategist who worked on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, said none of the other candidates in the race have shown they have a strategy for beating Trump. “He’s a technical incumbent. The big missing ingredient is a broad sustained campaign to show why he was a bad choice,” Madden said.
Even Republicans who have expressed skepticism about Trump’s chances in a general election have noted it will be tough to stop him from winning the nomination, due to his advantages, including his ability to attract media attention. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), a longtime strategist in Republican politics, said Trump “has a way of sucking up all the oxygen.”
Still, Cornyn is not willing to concede that Trump will lead the GOP ticket. “I don’t think anything’s inevitable in politics. That’s what makes it so interesting,” he said. “Anything can happen.”
Whit Ayres, a prominent GOP strategist, said with all the charges and trials to come over the next several months, there’s still too much uncertainty to anoint Trump the victor.
“You still have half the party who is open to an alternative, they are open to looking at another candidate and there are numerous debates and caucuses and primaries. I just don’t know how you can make a definitive statement with that much uncertainty,” Ayres said.
Cole, who once served as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said it’s possible another candidate could overperform expectations in Iowa or New Hampshire, but absent that, he said he expects Trump will have the nomination locked down swiftly.
“I think he’s the likely nominee, I wouldn’t say anything is inevitable. This is politics. But if you look at the polls, look at his numbers, look at his strength, it’s hard to see … I don’t see the president getting surprised on Super Tuesday, so I think we’ll know pretty quick,” Cole said, referencing the day next March when more than a dozen states cast their ballots.
Scott Clement and Paul Kane contributed to this report.