LAS VEGAS — Republicans are sifting through the wreckage of a third consecutive electoral drubbing, gingerly confronting the roadblocks to rebuilding posed by Donald Trump while daring to broach sidelining the former president in favor of fresh leadership.
Such conversations, once taboo in GOP circles, spilled out into the open this past weekend as the Republican Jewish Coalition gathered to unpack what went wrong in midterm elections and vet alternative 2024 contenders. The group’s annual meetings have been particularly friendly turf for Trump, gratitude for a presidency that delivered on key domestic and foreign policy issues. But even here, the appetite for change was palpable as activists and donors mulled options for moving beyond Trump.
“I’m very grateful for what his administration accomplished,” said Evy Stieglitz, 37, a Republican activist from Miami who works in the tech industry. She pointed to recent comments by Virginia Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears (R) to explain how she feels about the prospect of Trump 2024: “A real leader knows when he’s a liability, and a real leader knows when to step down and help the next.”
“A lot of people, I think, feel that way — that it’s time for a new candidate; because we all want to win, we don’t want to kvetch,” Stieglitz added. And who does she prefer? Like many grassroots Republicans, Stieglitz is looking to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). “I know he’s going to be the next president of the United States,” she said.
DeSantis brought down the house with a rousing Saturday evening speech to close the Republican Jewish Coalition conference, hinting that his ambitions reach beyond Tallahassee. “In times like these, there is no substitute for victory,” the governor said. “I have only begun to fight.”
For Republican Jewish Coalition members who traveled to Nevada for three days of socializing, strategizing, and speeches in a convention center along the Las Vegas Strip, the interest in a new White House standard bearer was striking, ditto the fact that discussions on the matter unfolded publicly. Trump has had an iron grip on the party, fueled by his close relationship with grassroots conservatives. Republicans are simply unaccustomed to being transparent about opposition to Trump.
The conference heard from no shortage of Republicans lobbying to replace the 45th president and urging the party to chart a new course — including three Trump administration veterans: Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Also addressing the group were former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, among others.
But for coalition members intent on dumping Trump, the focus was less about picking a favorite potential contender than it was figuring out a tactical approach to affect that outcome in a multicandidate primary. Trump made his 2024 bid official on Tuesday and may have a lock on at least 30% of the committed GOP vote despite starting from a weakened position. Republicans remember well how a crowded field helped boost him to the nomination in 2016.
“We need to limit the field to two or three people — coming out of the gate,” said Eric Levine, a Republican donor from New York. “Donald Trump lost in 2018, 2020, and he lost [the election] for us in 2022. And, he’s the only Republican who will lose in 2024.”
“How much losing can we absorb?” Levine added.
The Republican Jewish Coalition is neutral in the party’s presidential primary, and Trump retains a measure of support among organization leaders and rank-and-file members.
Although initially skeptical of Trump during his first White House bid, the former president won them over by spearheading peace treaties between Israel and its Arab neighbors, pulling the United States out of the Iran deal negotiated with American allies by President Barack Obama, and moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Many of Trump’s domestic fiscal and social policies also struck the right chord with the group’s conservative activists and donors.
When Trump spoke to the Republican Jewish Coalition via satellite Saturday from Mar-a-Lago, his residence and social club in Palm Beach, Florida, a ballroom audience of roughly 850 attendees gave the former president a rousing standing ovation. They clapped periodically as Trump listed achievements from his administration and criticized President Joe Biden, although the room fell silent each time he returned to his favorite topic: unsubstantiated claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
“We had a very disgraceful election. Many millions of votes more than we had in 2016, as you all know. And the result was a disgrace, in my opinion. An absolute sham and a disgrace,” Trump said. Asked at one point to talk about U.S. foreign policy in the context of a second Trump administration, the former president said: “The future, in some ways, is going back to the past.”
Trump’s apparent inability to articulate a future-oriented agenda and stop complaining about his loss to Biden is part of the reason why the debate about dethroning the former president as titular leader of the GOP is growing among Republicans. The other is a cold-hearted pragmatism. Whatever Trump might accomplish in a second term, Republicans are concluding it’s irrelevant, because they no longer believe he is viable in a general election.
Republicans lost the House on his watch in the 2018 midterm elections, they lost the White House and the Senate in 2020, and severely underperformed on Nov. 8 despite Biden’s unpopularity and voter anxiety about high inflation and rising crime — largely because independent voters stuck with the Democrats. So not only is Trump feared to be unelectable, but many in the party also worry the same is true of Republicans down-ticket so long as the former president is leading the GOP.
These concerns, plus lingering frustration with Trump for endorsing flawed 2022 candidates who fell in critical gubernatorial, House, and Senate races, were aired openly, in closed-door meetings and keynote speeches from the dais.
“Let’s have that family conversation amongst friends,” Pompeo told the Republican Jewish Coalition in prepared remarks Friday evening.
“We need leaders that will show the way conservatives get elected in America — leaders that will fight for them, not for ourselves or our own egos, but for them,” he said. “This is serious business. But we need not be angry, we need not be mean, we need not call names.”
The very next evening, Haley said the midterm elections should be a “wakeup call” for the GOP. “We have to choose candidates that can win not just [a] primary but a general election,” she said, lending her voice to the chorus of Republicans unhappy with some of the flawed contenders nominated on the strength of Trump’s endorsement. “Americans weren’t trusting the state of our party. They don’t want chaos.”
Here’s a sampling of what else Republican Jewish Coalition members heard from prominent party figures regarding Trump:
Christie. “The reason we’re losing is because Donald Trump has put himself before everybody else.” Hogan. “A party that has lost the popular vote in seven out of the last eight presidential elections, and that couldn’t even beat Joe Biden, is desperately in need of a course correction.” Sununu. “Candidate quality matters. Holy cow have we learned that one the tough way. Look, I’ve got a great policy for the Republican Party: Let’s stop supporting crazy, unelectable candidates in our primaries and start getting behind winners.”
Over the years, the Republican Jewish Coalition has grown in size and influence. Speaking slots are so coveted that the group’s CEO, Matt Brooks, has to space out the invites to its various events and conferences both to accommodate all of the politicians interested in appearing and ensure variety for the attendees. The approximately 850 who filled a convention center ballroom at the Venetian Resort was the coalition’s largest ever, a spokesman said.
Among this year’s speakers were House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Bill Hagerty (R-TN), Rick Scott (R-FL), and Tim Scott (R-SC), plus other federal lawmakers. But the main attraction was the cavalcade of possible White House hopefuls, which may or may not end up including Cruz, plus Scott of Florida and Scott of South Carolina.
Brooks and coalition board member Ari Fleischer, a Republican operative and former White House press secretary under President George W. Bush, said the invite list was purposeful. By design, the Republican Jewish Coalition conference was the first candidate cattle call of the 2024 GOP presidential primary. Brooks told attendees as the event closed that he was sure they had just spent the weekend with Biden’s successor.
In a subsequent news conference, Brooks and Fleischer confirmed that members of their group, at least, are keen on looking for alternatives to Trump. “I don’t think that there’s going to be a coronation in 2023 or 2024. There is going to be a lot of people shopping, and you can feel it in this room,” Fleischer said.
“Our people want to see what the lessons are that we learned in the election of midterms last week, what did we learn in 2020, what did we learn in 2022, what’s the vision going forward,” Brooks added.