Unlike several potential 2024 contenders who hail from the more moderate wing of the GOP, the three are being guarded in their criticism of Trump. But each critique has attracted special attention given the near-lockstep party support Trump has commanded for years. Taken together, they highlight how the prospective candidates are staking out calculated distance from Trump with an eye toward establishing their own political identities, making clear that they aren’t carbon copies of the former president and signaling to donors and party activists that they’re serious about running in 2024.
“The clock is ticking for anyone thinking about 2024. If you’re interested in the next cycle, you have to start defining yourself and your potential opponents,” said Republican strategist Tucker Martin, who was a top adviser to former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.
One of the most striking and direct breaks came last week, when Cotton hammered Trump’s First Step Act, which was aimed at reforming criminal sentencing laws and reducing the prison population. During a high-profile speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, a longtime platform for ambitious Republicans, Cotton called the bipartisan legislation “the worst mistake” of Trump’s tenure.
“No piece of legislation did more to harm our status as the party of public safety than the First Step Act,” said Cotton, noting that he had “led the fight” against the bill before its passage in 2018.
“What I predicted then has come true many times over: Criminals released from prison under the First Step Act have committed many more heinous crimes,” Cotton added. “Our party should reverse this and once again put hardened, career criminals where they belong — back behind bars.”
Cotton also reserved extensive praise for Trump during the speech, at one point comparing him to Reagan. But his comments about the First Step Act represented Cotton’s most pointed criticism yet of legislation he has long opposed. And it showed that the second-term senator — a steadfast Trump ally who spoke at the 2020 convention and was once rumored as a potential Trump pick to lead the CIA — was willing to call out the ex-president by name.
Pence, whose relationship with Trump ruptured after he refused to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential race, has spoken out about the former president’s ongoing re-litigation of the election results and posture toward Russia. During a closed-door speech before a Republican National Committee donor conference in New Orleans earlier this month, he declared that “elections are about the future” and that “we cannot win by fighting yesterday’s battles or by re-litigating the past.”
Turning to Russia, the former vice president contended there was “no room in this party for apologists for Putin” — another not-so-veiled jab at Trump, who only days earlier had called the Russian leader a “genius.”
Pence followed up the next week by venturing to the Poland-Ukraine border to meet with Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion of their homeland — a move that senior Republicans again viewed as an implicit contrast with, and swipe against, Trump.
Republican strategist Scott Jennings, who served as a top political adviser to former President George W. Bush, said Pence had little choice but to distinguish himself from Trump given his high-profile clash with the former president after Pence resisted Trump’s pressure to not certify the 2020 Electoral College results.
“You can’t run around and pretend like you’re aligned with Donald Trump anymore because you’re obviously not. You’ve taken him on, he’s taken you on,” Jennings said. “In this case, the most authentic thing is to embrace it and to say, ‘You know what? I answered the call of service from my party. I served Donald Trump. There are some things I don’t agree with and here they are.’”
DeSantis, meanwhile, has second-guessed Trump’s handling of the coronavirus. Asked to identify a regret from his time as governor on a recent appearance on the conservative “Ruthless” podcast, DeSantis picked one that reflected on Trump, saying he wished he had spoken out “much louder” against Trump’s support for restrictions during the opening days of the pandemic.
“I never thought in February, early March” of 2020 that the outbreak “would lead to locking down the country,” DeSantis said. “I just didn’t. I didn’t think that was on the radar.”
The remark escalated tensions between DeSantis and Trump. Only days earlier, the former president appeared to take a swipe at the governor, when Trump ripped “gutless” politicians who refused to say whether they’d gotten the Covid-19 booster shot — a question DeSantis had dodged. (Trump has called the idea of a rift between him and the governor “fake news.”)
Cotton, Pence and DeSantis are taking a more cautious approach in separating themselves from Trump than some other would-be candidates, including Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Hogan has come out forcefully against the former president, saying recently that Trump is “the biggest threat to Republican success” in this year’s midterm elections. And during an appearance last fall before the Republican Jewish Coalition, Christie — a former Trump ally — said the party was “wasting time” re-litigating the 2020 election. Hogan and Christie have said a Trump comeback bid would not deter them from waging their own campaigns.
Trump advisers say there is no reason to believe he would be vulnerable in a 2024 primary. Still, the former president is going out of his way to push back. The day after Pence addressed the RNC donor conference, Trump delivered his own speech at the event where he rebutted his former vice president.
“Somebody called me a ‘Putin apologist’ the other day,” Trump said, before going on to dispute the criticism. “There’s no one who’s ever been tougher on Russia than me.”
To some, the criticism of Trump from within his own party — cautious as it may be — indicates that Trump’s support has begun to soften.
“While Trump is still very influential within the party, that influence diminishes more each day. It’s natural as each day moves us further from his presidency,” said Mike DuHaime, a veteran GOP strategist and former RNC political director.
But while Cotton, Pence and DeSantis have demonstrated a willingness to carefully take on the former president, it remains to be seen whether any of them would be willing to run against him. Still, behind the scenes, each have begun assembling political organizations that could be used to lay the groundwork for national campaigns.
Cotton has launched a political action committee devoted to funding midterm candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire, two early-voting Republican presidential primary states. Pence has started a nonprofit political advocacy group that recently announced a $10 million advertising blitz targeting House Democrats. DeSantis is capitalizing on his rising prominence — and his 2022 reelection campaign — to cultivate a national donor network.
But Republicans say that doesn’t mean Trump’s frontrunner status in a primary is under threat — at least not yet.
“He’s in a pretty strong spot to run if he wants it. I don’t think he’s going to get it by acclimation, and I think someone ought to run against him and make a strong argument why he’s the worst nominee, not the best,” Jennings said. “But just objectively speaking, how could you judge anything other than he’s the favorite, given the circumstances that we know exist?”