Some in GOP have eyes on 2020

Stealth cam­paign­ing by Trump al­lies barely masks am­bi­tions

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NATIONAL - JONATHAN MARTIN AND ALEX BURNS In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Ken­neth P. Vo­gel of The New York Times.

WASH­ING­TON — Sens. Tom Cot­ton of Arkansas and Ben Sasse of Ne­braska al­ready have been to Iowa this year; Ohio Gov. John Ka­sich is look­ing at a re­turn visit to New Hamp­shire; and Mike Pence’s sched­ule is so full of po­lit­i­cal events that Repub­li­cans joke that he is act­ing more like a sec­ond-term vice pres­i­dent hop­ing to clear the field than a No. 2 sworn in a lit­tle over six months ago.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s first term is os­ten­si­bly just warm­ing up, but lu­mi­nar­ies in his own party have be­gun what amounts to a shadow cam­paign for 2020 — as if the cur­rent oc­cu­pant of 1600 Penn­syl­va­nia Ave. weren’t in­volved.

The would-be can­di­dates are cul­ti­vat­ing some of the party’s most prom­i­nent donors, court­ing con­ser­va­tive in­ter­est groups and care­fully en­hanc­ing their pro­files. Trump has given no in­di­ca­tion that he will de­cline to seek a sec­ond term.

But the sheer dis­ar­ray sur­round­ing this pres­i­dency — the in­ten­si­fy­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion by spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller and the plain un­cer­tainty about what Trump will do in the next week, let alone in the next elec­tion — have prompted Repub­li­can of­fice­hold­ers to take po­lit­i­cal steps that are un­heard-of so soon into a new ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Asked about those Repub­li­cans who seem to have an eye on 2020, a White House spokesman, Lind­say Wal­ters, fired a warn­ing shot: “The pres­i­dent is as strong as he’s ever been in Iowa, and ev­ery po­ten­tially am­bi­tious Repub­li­can knows that.”

But in in­ter­views with more than 75 Repub­li­cans at ev­ery level of the party, elected of­fi­cials, donors and strate­gists ex­pressed wide­spread un­cer­tainty about whether Trump would be on the bal­lot in 2020 and lit­tle doubt that others in the party are en­gaged in barely veiled con­tin­gency plan­ning.

“They see weak­ness in this pres­i­dent,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “Look, it’s not a nice busi­ness we’re in.”

Trump changed the rules of in­tra­party pol­i­tics last year when he took down some of the lead­ing lights of the Repub­li­can Party to seize the nom­i­na­tion. Now a few hope­fuls are qui­etly dis­card­ing tra­di­tions that would have dic­tated, for in­stance, the re­spect­ful ab­sten­tion from speak­ing at Repub­li­can din­ners in the states that kick off the pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion process.

In most cases, the shadow can­di­dates and their op­er­a­tives have sig­naled that they are pre­par­ing only in case Trump is not avail­able in 2020. Most sig­nif­i­cant, mul­ti­ple ad­vis­ers to Pence have al­ready in­ti­mated to party donors that he would plan to run if Trump did not.

Ka­sich has been more de­fi­ant: The Ohio gov­er­nor, who was un­suc­cess­ful in 2016, has de­clined to rule out a 2020 cam­paign in mul­ti­ple tele­vi­sion in­ter­views, and has in­di­cated to as­so­ciates that he may run again, even if Trump seeks an­other term.

Pence has been the pace­set­ter. Though it is cus­tom­ary for vice pres­i­dents to keep a full po­lit­i­cal cal­en­dar, he has gone a step fur­ther, cre­at­ing an in­de­pen­dent power base, ce­ment­ing his sta­tus as Trump’s heir ap­par­ent and pro­mot­ing him­self as the main con­duit be­tween the Repub­li­can donor class and the ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The vice pres­i­dent cre­ated his own po­lit­i­cal fundrais­ing com­mit­tee, Great Amer­ica Com­mit­tee, shrug­ging off warn­ings from some high-pro­file Repub­li­cans that it would cre­ate spec­u­la­tion about his in­ten­tions. The group, set up with help from Jack Oliver, a former fundraiser for Ge­orge W. Bush, has over­shad­owed Trump’s own pri­mary out­side po­lit­i­cal group, Amer­ica First Ac­tion, even rais­ing more in dis­closed do­na­tions.

Pence also in­stalled Nick Ay­ers as his new chief of staff last month — a strik­ing de­par­ture from vice pres­i­dents’ long his­tory of el­e­vat­ing a gov­ern­ment veteran to be their top staff mem­ber. Ay­ers had worked on many cam­paigns but never in the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

Some in the party’s es­tab­lish­ment wing are open about their wish that Pence would be the Repub­li­can stan­dard-bearer in 2020, Rep. Char­lie Dent of Penn­syl­va­nia said.

Pence has made no overt ef­forts to sep­a­rate him­self from the be­lea­guered pres­i­dent. He has kept up his re­lent­less pub­lic praise and even in pri­vate is care­ful to bow to the pres­i­dent.

For his part, Pence is me­thod­i­cally es­tab­lish­ing his own iden­tity and be­stow­ing per­sonal touches on peo­ple who could pay div­i­dends in the fu­ture. He not only spoke in June at one of the most im­por­tant yearly events for Iowa Repub­li­cans, Sen. Joni Ernst’s pig roast, but he also held a sep­a­rate, more in­ti­mate gath­er­ing for donors after­ward.

Other Repub­li­cans cast­ing their eyes on the White House have taken note.

Cot­ton, for ex­am­ple, is plan­ning a two-day, $5,000-per-per­son fundraiser in New York next month, os­ten­si­bly for Se­nate Repub­li­cans (and his own even­tual re-elec­tion cam­paign). The gath­er­ing will in­clude a din­ner and a series of events at the Har­vard Club, fea­tur­ing fig­ures well known in hawk­ish for­eign-pol­icy cir­cles such as Stephen Hadley, Bush’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser.

Cot­ton, 40, a first-term Arkansas sen­a­tor, made head­lines for go­ing to Iowa last year dur­ing the cam­paign. He was back just af­ter the elec­tion for a birth­day party in Des Moines for former Gov. Terry Branstad and re­turned in May to give the key­note speech at a county Repub­li­can din­ner in Coun­cil Bluffs.

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