The former president’s grip on the party base is so total that top Republicans say the path to the nomination is best defined by the degree of loyalty to him.
At least eight 2024 hopefuls will speak at CPAC, the conservative movement’s premier conference this weekend in Florida, giving Republicans their clearest look yet at who’s competing in the traditional GOP presidential lanes.
But there’s only one lane that really matters: the one currently occupied by former President Donald Trump.
Trump, the keynote speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference, is the party’s undisputed leader at the moment, and for the foreseeable future. And whether he chooses to run again in 2024 or not, his outsized presence is likely to determine the shape of the primary.
“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.
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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