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The GOP’s choice in 2024: Trump Ultra, Trump Lite or Trump Zero

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Nikki Haley and former President Donald Trump

“There isn’t a Trump lane. There’s a Trump Turnpike with multiple lanes and multiple people,” said Chris LaCivita, a veteran GOP strategist who most recently headed the anti-Biden super PAC Preserve America.

Conversations with more than a dozen Republican consultants, strategists and officials depict a party over which Trump exerts an irresistible gravitational pull, pointing to his continued strength in polls and the megawatt energy he generates among the GOP grassroots.

Trump’s grip on the Republican base and his effect on the minds of White House hopefuls is so total, they say, that the path to the GOP nomination is best defined by the degree of loyalty to Trump — to the point where party operatives reach for elaborate metaphors to best convey the extent of his influence.

“Trump remains the 800-pound gorilla in the room, he just happens to be sitting in the corner right now,” former Michigan state chair Saul Anuzis said, joking that the social media de-platforming of the former president is “more like an electronic dog fence. … You can definitely still hear the bark.”

Already, potential prospects and party leaders are making pilgrimages to Trump’s Palm Beach club for an audience with the former president. It’s a reflection, top Republicans say, of a nomination contest that will break down along fault lines that trace back to Trump.

“The winner of our primary [in 2024] will be someone from the Full Trump lane who embraces Trump and is embraced by him,” said Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, a confidant of the former president who met with him last week at Mar-a-Lago and has taken on the role of party enforcer.

Gaetz, who’s also scheduled to speak at CPAC, said few will challenge Trump if he decides to run again. And he predicted that candidates who fail to embrace Trump’s legacy in full will only have a “mirage” of support “because their base is essentially Washington-based media who give them more appearances on the Sunday shows than their percentage point support in polling of Republican voters.”

On the eve of CPAC, here is a breakdown of the 2024 GOP presidential lanes that are taking shape.

Trump Ultra

There’s a saying by some in Trump’s orbit that “if you’re with him 99 percent of the time, you’re a damn traitor” — a testament to the absolute, unwavering loyalty he demands. Those purity and loyalty tests make the Trump Ultra lane one of the toughest to run in.

A key metric for senators and representatives who expect to occupy this lane: opposition to the Jan. 6 certification of the Electoral College results that officially made him the loser and that led to the storming of the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob. That puts Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley and Florida Sen. Rick Scott — all CPAC speakers — squarely in the Trump Ultra camp.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose stock is rising rapidly in the national party, will open the conference with welcoming remarks. He sports sterling MAGA credential for his Trumpist handling of Covid and status as governor of Trump’s newly adopted home state — which the former president won twice. To this day, DeSantis refuses to publicly acknowledge that President Joe Biden was legitimately elected.

DeSantis isn’t the only governor in this category: South Dakota’s Kristi Noem, another CPAC speaker, is a dark horse candidate. Noem, who is holding a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago on March 5, is a Fox News regular who once gave Trump a miniature Mt. Rushmore featuring his own face.

Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state known within the previous administration for his unwillingness to criticize Trump even in private, is also in this crowded group and is scheduled to speak at CPAC.

Trump Lite

The Trump Lite lane is populated by candidates who have put any daylight — however little — between themselves and the former president.

In the case of former Vice President Mike Pence, who was unceasingly loyal to Trump for more than four years, it was his refusal to reject the Electoral College certification when he presided over the vote. That apostasy costs him among many Trump supporters. He declined an invitation to speak at CPAC.

Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, a leading voice in criticizing China — one of Trump’s signature issues — is in the same situation after voting to accept the Electoral College results. So is Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Although Rubio carved out a niche for himself as a consistent anti-anti-Trump Republican who frequently attacks the former president’s critics, he committed the sin of mildly criticizing Trump after his two impeachments and blasted him as a primary rival in 2016. Both are scheduled to speak at CPAC.

Trump’s former United Nations ambassador, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, recently stepped out of the full Trump lane by making critical comments about her onetime boss and was promptly snubbed by the former president when she requested an audience with him at Mar-a-Lago.

In an interview prior to Haley’s criticisms of Trump, South Carolina GOP strategist Wesley Donehue predicted she would win her home state but noted that support of the former president is of utmost importance, according to a poll of Republican primary voters he took in the state in early February.

“About 75 percent of Republican primary voters said supporting Donald Trump is a requirement for office. Again: a requirement. It’s absolutely astonishing,” Donehue said. “So she was seen in this state as being 100 percent with Donald Trump, but now over the last two weeks, we’re starting to hear a lot of rumblings. People still love Nikki Haley here, but she’s got to figure out a way to deal with this. I don’t know how she does, though. Because Donald Trump doesn’t seem to be someone with a short memory.”

Haley’s standing in her home state’s primary looms large because the lanes the candidates will run in have both an ideological and geographical dimension. Since South Carolina is traditionally the third state to vote in a primary — and the first to go in the South — it exerts an extra gravitational pull.

In New Hampshire, sandwiched between the Iowa and South Carolina contests, Republican strategist Jim Merrill said that Trump Lite could be “potentially the broadest lane … a hybrid that is able to point out Trump’s shortcomings while also working to build on his gains with working class Americans.”

Trump Zero

Jeff Roe, who advised Cruz on his 2016 presidential bid, has polled Republican primary voters extensively in recent years on what type of candidate they would support. He’s determined that the party has three distinctive lanes: a Full Trump lane, a Most Conservative lane (composed of fiscal and social conservatives) and a Most Electable lane that reflects a preference for whomever can beat the Democrats.

“If you don’t pick a lane, you will get run over,” Roe said. “Candidates who try to hold a mirror up to the electorate and say, ‘Look at me, I’m just like you,’ instead of saying, ‘This is who I am, vote for me,’ will lose. Voters want authenticity. They want leaders.”

That focus on electability is at the heart of the Trump Zero lane. It is essentially the vehicle of the anti-Trump wing, the province of those who have called out the president frequently for his rhetoric and post-election behavior, yet can single out some positive aspects of Trump’s four-year reign.

The problem is the lane might be so small that it’s not much of a path at all, said David Kochel, a longtime GOP strategist from first-in-the-nation Iowa who counts Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse among this group.

“It’s probably not even a lane,” Kochel said. “It’s more like a gravelly shoulder on the side of the mountain that’s about to crumble into the ocean.”

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‘A nicer version of Trump’: GOP donors flock to DeSantis

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'A nicer version of Trump': GOP donors flock to DeSantis

POLITICO’s Holly Otterbein reports on how Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s Senate run has become an inflection point in the Democratic party. Plus, Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she won’t bring progressive “court packing” legislation to the floor. And House Minority Leader McCarthy meets with scandal-ridden Rep. Matt Gaetz.

The enthusiasm was on full display during DeSantis’ appearance at last weekend’s Republican National Committee donor gala in Palm Beach, Fla., where he drew wild applause for declaring the party needed figures who withstood public pressure and weren’t afraid to confront what he called the “elite, New York corporate media.”

The governor was mobbed over the course of the weekend. Joanne Zervos, a New York City donor who spoke with DeSantis during the conference, said many contributors saw him as “a nicer version of Trump,” someone who had embraced the former president’s policies but lacked his rough edges. Zervos said she was drawn to the governor because of his approach to dealing with the coronavirus.

DeSantis last week also made a surprise appearance at a donor retreat convened by the Conservative Partnership Institute, an organization overseen by Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). The event was held at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach. During his appearances last week, some attendees approached him and encouraged him to run in 2024.

Whether DeSantis’ popularity among donors is lasting or fleeting remains an open question. The 2024 nominating contest is a long way off, and other would-be candidates have also developed close relationships with contributors. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was also well-received at the RNC retreat, according to attendees. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) has previously drawn financial support from hedge fund manager Paul Singer, one of the party’s most sought-after givers. Pence spent years cultivating big contributors, many of whom were uncomfortable with Trump but saw the then-vice president as an ally within the administration.

For now, DeSantis aides insist that the 42-year-old governor is focused squarely on running for reelection and hasn’t begun thinking about the presidential contest, something they have been trying to remind donors. The governor faces a potentially challenging 2022 contest against Democratic state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is expected to enter the race soon.

But DeSantis’ aggressive courtship of national givers bears striking similarities to the approach then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush used in his 1998 reelection race, which preceded his presidential bid two years later. Bush spent the 1998 campaign traveling the country and introducing himself to the Republican Party’s biggest donors, many of whom contributed to his reelection effort and later became key to his 2000 national campaign.

As he embarks on his fundraising blitz, DeSantis has begun building a team with national experience. He has tapped veteran Republican strategist Phil Cox to help oversee his 2022 campaign. Cox, who has developed deep ties to the donor class through his past leadership of the Republican Governors Association, accompanied the governor to last week’s retreats.

But DeSantis’ most potent fundraising weapon may be his home state, which has long been home to some of the GOP’s biggest bankrollers. The governor has tapped into upscale areas like Miami Beach, where during a multistop March swing he appeared at a fundraising lunch at the La Gorce Country Club that was hosted by real estate developer Jimmy Tate. Others present included investor Jimmy Resnick.

Florida’s list of major Republican Party donors is getting longer. While the state has long attracted the wealthy through its promise of low taxes and warm weather, the pandemic has supercharged the migration. Financial leaders say they’ve been drawn to DeSantis’ reluctance to embrace the stringent mitigation policies implemented by blue-state governors that have taken a toll on businesses.

The roster includes venture capitalist David Blumberg, who in November moved to the Miami Beach area from San Francisco. Blumberg, who contributed more than $100,000 to Trump’s reelection effort, has met with DeSantis around a half-dozen times since arriving to the state.

“I have admired Gov. DeSantis from afar,” Blumberg said. “Since I’ve moved to Florida with my family, I’ve gotten to know him reasonably well and have a very good impression of what I’ve seen.”

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The GOP-Big Business Divorce Goes Deeper Than You Think

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The GOP-Big Business Divorce Goes Deeper Than You Think

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a legendary business professor and associate dean at the Yale School of Management, has watched this split grow in recent years, and has heard it from CEOs he knows and works with. What the GOP cares about and what major businesses care about is, increasingly incompatible, he says.

“The political desire to use wedge issues to divide — which used to be fringe in the GOP — has become mainstream,” Sonnenfeld says. “That is 100 percent at variance with what the business community wants. And that is a million times more important to them than how many dollars of taxes are paid here or there.”

Over the weekend, Sonnenfeld hastily organized a Zoom conference with roughly 100 major corporate executives to talk through the voter restrictions being considered by state legislatures throughout the country, and about the way top Republicans like McConnell and Ted Cruz are responding with attacks on businesses that speak up in opposition.

Most of the CEOs on the call were Republicans; Sonnenfeld himself has been an informal adviser to both Republican and Democratic presidents, but he has a longstanding relationship with McConnell, and spoke at the senator’s wedding to Elaine Chao. The CEOs “ranged from amused to outraged” in their reaction to the GOP attacks on businesses, says Sonnenfeld. “Their comments ranged from talk about ‘taxation without representation’ to the paradox of ‘cancel culture’: It’s OK if they speak out, but only as long as they stay on script?”

As the GOP tries to position itself as the home of “working-class values,” capturing loyalty with a steady campaign against the perceived excesses of progressive culture, it’s running afoul of a business community that can’t simply silo off “culture war” topics. In the eyes of major corporations, issues like voting rights, immigration and transgender-inclusive restrooms have economic impact, too. The millions of people alienated by those fights aren’t just their future customers, many of whom expect to support brands they believe in, they’re the companies’ employees.

“The bad news for Republicans is that they seem to have a 1920s view of who big business’s workforce is,” says Sonnenfeld. “That workforce is, at a minimum, highly diverse — and they get along. Trying to stir that up is misguided.”

The new Republican penchant for mocking corporations for being too socially aware — for instance, Sen. Ted Cruz’s Twitter threat to use the power of the state to harm Major League Baseball’s business, signing the message off with “go woke, go broke” — fundamentally misunderstands what matters to business in the 21st century, says Sonnenfeld. “Basically, business leaders believe that it’s in the interest of society to have social harmony… Divisiveness in society is not in their interest, short term or long term.”

If the marriage between the Republican Party and the business community is on the rocks, what does that mean for politics? What do we misunderstand about what really matters to CEOs? And why aren’t business executives more afraid of boycott threats from the right?

For answers to all of that and more, POLITICO Magazine spoke with Sonnenfeld this week. A condensed transcript of that conversation follows, edited for length and clarity.

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Pence has pacemaker implanted – POLITICO

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Pence has pacemaker implanted - POLITICO

Former Vice President Mike Pence had a pacemaker implanted on Wednesday, his office announced in a release Thursday.

After being named to Donald Trump’s ticket in 2016, Pence disclosed that he had been diagnosed with an asymptomatic left bundle branch block, he said. In the past two weeks, Pence’s office said he had begun to have symptoms related to a “slow heart rate.”

Pence then had the pacemaker inserted in a successful “routine surgery” at Inova Fairfax Medical Campus in Falls Church, Va., his office said in the statement. Pence is “expected to fully recover and return to normal activity in the coming days,” the statement said.

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