CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — When the chair of the Iowa Republican Party asked Sen. Tim Scott on Thursday to “take us on a little journey of what you’re dreaming right now,” an opening for him to tease something newsy about his political future, Scott said it was a “tough” but “good” question.
“President!” someone in the audience shouted.
“Of my homeowners’ association?” Scott replied.
Scott didn’t admit as much to Republicans who showed up to see him at a swanky country club in Iowa’s second-largest city — but, no, he wasn’t there to talk about running for president of his HOA.
The South Carolina senator is one of nearly a dozen Republicans who are beginning to quietly lay the groundwork for presidential campaigns in 2024 with one major, unpredictable caveat: Donald Trump.
Scott didn’t mention Trump once while headlining the GOP fundraiser this week with Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa. But the former president has hinted he might run again in two years, complicating matters for loyalists like Scott who are effectively stuck in limbo until Trump makes up his mind. Those Republicans include Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sen. Rick Scott of Florida.
The developing 2024 field started planting seeds in Iowa back in 2021 — and in some cases earlier. Cruz is a returning favorite, having won the 2016 caucuses against Trump.
Something they all seem to have in common now: None of them has a bad word — or really any words — to say about Trump, according to Jeff Kaufmann, chair of the Iowa Republican Party, which helps orchestrate the GOP’s first presidential nominating contest.
“I’ve yet to have a person come in here that has even subtly hinted something negative about Trump,” Kaufmann told reporters after the Tim Scott event. “And when there are disagreements, it’s put in a way that these are disagreements of the family. I thought maybe I might have a little more of that back and forth.”
Instead, the party’s dignitaries are sticking to issues like immigration and the economy that are still popular with the Republican base.
“In the next election, I don’t think you will see anyone moving away from [Trump’s] policies,” Kaufmann said. “You heard Sen. Scott — he didn’t mention the president’s name, but he talked about the policies.”
“I’ve yet to have a person come in here that has even subtly hinted something negative about Trump.”
If there’s an opening for a ‘Never Trump’ Republican to run in 2024, it might only be a sliver, if that. The small sample size of committed GOP activists at the Scott event didn’t seem likely to embrace a Trump antagonist like Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) or Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who are both considering how to leverage their national profiles since voting to impeach Trump in 2021.
“I would definitely support [Trump],” said Shelley Nelson, a retiree who was concerned about the economy and gas prices. “I would really like to see [Florida Gov.] Ron DeSantis run. He would be my No. 1 choice in 2024. But if it’s Trump, sure. I mean, I love Trump’s policies. Anybody’s personality can rub you wrong, but the policies worked great.”
Scott, the Senate’s only Black Republican, hooked the crowd in Cedar Rapids with his inspiring life story of being raised by his grandparents following his parents’ divorce.
“My grandfather spent every single morning coming to the kitchen table with me and my brother and read the newspaper cover to cover,” Scott, 56, recalled. “I always wondered what was so important in the newspaper that this man would read it every day for 30 minutes. It was about 15 years later when I learned that my grandfather actually never learned to read, but what he had learned to do was set the example for both of his grandkids to understand the power of being informed and being educated.”
Scott, a senator since 2013 and a rising star in the Republican Party, previewed what might be ahead on the campaign trail: “One side wants to measure your success and your importance by how much melanin you have in your skin. I prefer to measure our success and our significance by the values we’re willing to defend.”
An independent GOP adviser in the audience said that Trump’s unpredictable timing could muddy things even for well-meaning Republicans in the field. “The people who announce before him, what do they do after?” that person asked.
“I think people are going to want to keep their powder dry for as long as they can to see what the field looks like,” said David Kochel, a veteran GOP strategist in Iowa. “It’s going to be the best excuse in the world for people to say, ’Thanks for calling, Sen. Cruz, but we’re not ready to make a commitment yet.’”
Scott slipped out of the event early Thursday to catch a flight but promised he would be back. Haley is the next Republican on tap to headline a fundraiser for the Iowa GOP later this month.
Althea Hasse, a homemaker from outside Cedar Rapids, said she liked how Scott appeared “direct and honest … he seems like a religious guy, and we need religious people.”
Ernst, who joined the Senate two years after Scott, called him “one of my best friends in the United States Senate” and “the embodiment of the American dream.”
If Trump does run again, he wouldn’t necessarily enjoy the advantages of incumbency, like having the party’s early backing.
“Ultimately, that question of incumbency is going to be up to the voters,” Kaufmann said. “I’ve stated very publicly that this is going to be an open, neutral playing field.
“The chairman of the party will not be endorsing anyone. And, quite frankly, I hope no one on my state central committee will endorse anyone either.”
Pence, who has quietly broken with Trump, was the last Republican to call Kaufmann personally, after Iowa’s primary this week. “He said he’s going to be back in the state and to keep him in mind if there’s any events that [he] can help with,” Kaufmann said.
Notably, the party chair said that Trump’s people haven’t reached out yet.
“All of this depends on the 700-pound elephant in the room and what he’s going to do,” Kaufmann said. “I don’t think we’re going to get significant guidance on that until after 2022.”