Some in GOP have eyes on 2020
Stealth campaigning by Trump allies barely masks ambitions
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.