The Chris Christie Flu

Donald Trump
Roughly 40 minutes into Donald Trump’s announcement that he was running for president again, Sean Hannity came back on the air to talk to a Fox and Friends weekend host while Trump was consigned to picture-in-picture. Photo: Alon Skuy/AFT/Getty Images
Tina Nguyen
November 16, 2022

It’s rare that you see Fox News cut away from the biggest news event in Republican politics. Roughly 40 minutes into Donald Trump’s announcement that he was running for president again, a glittery affair at Mar-a-Lago scheduled during primetime, Sean Hannity came back on the air to talk to Fox and Friends weekend host Pete Hegseth and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee—hardly the A-team of Fox News—while Trump was consigned to picture-in-picture. Well into the 10 p.m. hour, Laura Ingraham ran her show over the muted live footage of Trump rambling about “Marxists,” executing drug dealers and referring obliquely to QAnon “storm” rhetoric. The New York Post, which was once all in for Trump, consigned the announcement to page 26.

It was quite a difference from 2016, or even 2020. CNN, which made Trump the focal point of years of frenzied coverage, stopped carrying the speech after 25 minutes; the networks didn’t air it at all. At Mar-a-Lago, ABC’s Jon Karl observed people trying to leave the ballroom early, but getting stopped by staffers to avoid generating an all-too on-the-nose visual metaphor.

The subdued mood of the night—I kept hearing the words “low-energy” being thrown around, the phrase itself a Trump-era death rattle—hinted at the obvious: a week ago, the Republicans endured the most embarrassing midterm performance in recent history. Despite an unpopular president, record inflation, the soaring cost of living and several international crises, the Democrats successfully defended the Senate and denied Kevin McCarthy a sizable majority in the House. And while the G.O.P. is trading blame across its leadership ranks, there’s one man who’s drawing most of the fire. “I feel like there’s a big difference in Trump declaring victory and credit for the big red wave of whatever size it might have been, and everybody’s happy. That’s kind of the head of steam they wanted,” one G.O.P. consultant told me. “Now it’s almost purely out of defensive, seize-the-vacuum before anybody can really take it, as the Murdoch empire is coming out against him. It really does feel different.”

So far, I’m told, the only person who seems truly ready to challenge Trump is former Maryland governor Larry Hogan—a candidacy that everyone I canvassed immediately ruled out as unviable. (“Here’s a guy who, on Wednesday after the election, the first thing he does is run onto CNN—agitprop for the other party—and crow about how this vindicates his worldview,” a second G.O.P. strategist told me.) Still, the chatter surrounding the growing group of 2024 aspirants—governors, senators, and former G.O.P. politicians alike—has reached a fever pitch. The serious names I heard in conversations with Republican strategists this week included all the obvious candidates who have obviously been pre-running for president since their political bladders broke many months ago: among them Mike Pompeo, Mike Pence, Glenn Youngkin, and Ron DeSantis—“the new hotness,” a longtime conservative activist told me, after his astounding 19.4-point blowout in Florida last week. “Nobody’s saying Kristi Noem. Nobody’s saying Nikki Haley. Nobody’s saying Tim Scott. Nobody’s saying Hogan. Nobody’s saying Mike Pence. They’re all just saying DeSantis. Occasionally, occasionally, you’ll hear like, ‘Oh, I wonder what Youngkin’s gonna do.’ So he’s like, He’s the number two, but a distant number two.”

“A Long, Odd Year”

It has not escaped notice that Trump’s announcement came the week that Pence’s political memoir was published. Last year, I reported that the former vice president hoped to use his book tour to both establish his record as a good Trump ally in the realm of policy, and defend his actions on January 6th as in service of political normalcy. Since then, of course, Pence has not really gained momentum—but he hasn’t lost any standing, either, showing up at rallies across Indiana. “I mean, it’s funny because Mike Pence actually does pretty decent in polls as just like, a default, steady hand Republican,” the first G.O.P. consultant told me. “For all the ‘hanging Mike Pence’ stuff, he hasn’t actually taken on much water as much as you’d expect them to.” 

But the line between being too Trumpy and not Trumpy enough might be impossible not only to walk, but even to find. As a longtime conservative activist put it bluntly to me, Pence exists in a “no-man’s land” between the Never-Trumpers like Liz Cheney and Larry Hogan—Republicans who are effectively homeless in today’s G.O.P. “Do people like him? Yes. Do people respect him? Are they grateful, even on the Republican side of the aisle, for what he did, both for Trump for four years and on January 6th? They are,” the activist told me. “Nobody with any brain is like, ‘oh, he betrayed Trump.’ The only person who says that is Trump. But does he have a lane? I just don’t see it.” And then there’s the obvious: a Pence challenge would inevitably turn into a grudge match between the two men, and it’s not obvious whether voters would care enough to side with Pence, or if Pence even wants that himself. “I think Pence would do it because he’s mad. It’s a really bad reason to run for president, but he’s mad,” the strategist told me.

Pompeo has a viable lane, sources told me, should he deign to jump in: he’s a Midwesterner with working-class roots, a battle-tested China hawk, talented at retail politics, and, if the chance presented itself, would be “the smartest guy on the debate stage by far.” His one weakness, however, is his inability to trigger the libs—a good quality if you’re Secretary of State, bad if you’re trying to win a G.O.P. primary. “That’s what you could see with J.D. Vance: he could just say something slightly avant and MSNBC would have a whole night meltdown,” the Republican strategist noted. “It’s a very good thing to have. Mike doesn’t have that. So he’s gonna figure out how to get there.”

Youngkin, the private equity mogul-turned-governor who is term-limited by the Virginia constitution, has plenty of political momentum that he could channel anywhere should he decide to stay in the arena. And as the consultant put it, Youngkin—another billionaire outsider candidate—is Trump-proof in several unique ways. “I feel like there’s lots to go after Youngkin for, but I don’t know that Trump is like, the best guy for it. You can’t go for ‘Little Glenn’ when he’s towering over you. The guy might be worth more than you are if you really dig down.” That might be why Trump resorted to a bafflingly racist description of Youngkin last week (“Young Kin—now that’s an interesting take. Sounds Chinese, doesn’t it?”) rather than take aim at his corporate background: “There’s a lot of stuff that [people] haven’t gone after, but also Trump’s not the greatest guy to level those attacks.”

But only DeSantis faces any real urgency to make a decision. So far, he’s done all the proper things to keep the MAGA voters on his side—stumping with election-denying stalwarts like Kari Lake and Doug Mastriano, for instance—while steering away from discussing the 2020 election itself. But his ability to dismiss any Trump attacks as a distraction from the governance of Florida would dissipate the moment he announces, meaning that timing matters to DeSantis’s team the most. 

As I’ve reported in the past, one factor weighing heavily on Team DeSantis’s mind is the not illegitimate fear of becoming the next Chris Christie: a popular figure who put off the decision to run in 2012, and lost momentum by the time he entered the arena in 2016. But the people I spoke to unanimously agreed that while DeSantis is certainly running hot right now, there is no telling whether he might be the next Christie, or Scott Walker, Tim Pawlenty or Jeb Bush: G.O.P. governors who became party darlings and seeming frontrunners on paper, but flamed out when they hit the national stage. “I think there is a real fear of getting in too early—even getting what feels like a moment where things are going your way—only to have the bubble pop too early,” the consultant explained to me. If DeSantis got in too soon, he pointed out, Trump would have more time to assail him. “It’s a long primary season. It’s a long, odd year there. And I think you want to set yourself up to be somebody who’s in it for the long haul, not somebody who tries to catch fire early.”

The Known Unknowns

Of course, a few things have to happen before anyone makes any decisions about challenging Trump, the consultant warned me. First, the Georgia Senate runoff has to take place in December, and should Herschel Walker win, it would be an easy way for Trump to argue that his political presence—especially as a declared candidate for president—was not as toxic as the establishment had hyped it up to be. Second, they have to watch whether Trump can damage the standing of said establishment in Congress. So far, he’s backed Rick Scott against Mitch McConnell for Senate leadership, and though he ultimately supported Kevin McCarthy for the Republican Speaker nomination, this person observed that Trump held sway over a “mutinous faction” in the House whom he could activate against McCarthy at any given moment. “If he just wakes up one morning and feels like stirring things up, because he’s cranky, he can really kind of make people dance on the Republican House side.”

And third, they have to see how Trump plans on defining them before going on the counterattack. Over the next few months, Trump plans on crisscrossing the country to hold rallies, much like he did in 2016, giving him ample opportunity to workshop attacks against his potential foes in front of a friendly crowd. “I don’t know that ‘DeSanctimonious’ sticks around,” he joked. “But he figures out what works, he figures out what the crowd likes, what it doesn’t like. And that’s kind of what informs him. That’s where he feels alive. That’s the part of the campaign that he likes.”

The excited chatter over the possibility of Trump being ousted, however, is tempered by political reality: after all, it has only been a week since the G.O.P.’s deflating midterm outcome, and there’s more than a year to go before the first votes are cast in Iowa. That’s a geological epoch in politics, and today’s new hotness could be tomorrow’s Jeb Bush. “People who are thinking that what happened over the last seven days is going to be exactly the same as what is going to play out in the next two years, need to take a deep breath and recognize that we don’t know as much as we think we do,” said a second G.O.P. strategist. “Because if we did, we’d have a nice majority in the Senate and a huge majority in the House.”