Over the past few weeks, the Republican presidential field has begun to truly take shape, with enough people having formally declared their candidacies that we can begin to break the field into different tiers. That said, it’s still pretty early – at this same point in the 2016 primaries, Donald Trump was running neck and neck with Jeb Bush and just barely ahead of Ben Carson. Yes, that’s right, Ben Carson – who, like Trump, had never held elected office before running for president – was polling just as well as Jeb Bush. So, it’s important that we take the apparent state of the race with a grain – nay, a bucket – of salt.

Still, right now, it seems as if the race is going to consist of former President Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis … and everyone else.

In polling earlier this year, DeSantis seemed to be rapidly gaining ground on Trump, but since then he’s been slipping slightly, while none of the other candidates have been making any real headway. Those other candidates may be further divided into a few other groups, beginning with vanity candidates.

These candidates are organized enough to raise some money, show up to the debate stage, register in national polls and make the ballot in a few states, but don’t have any realistic chance of becoming the nominee. So far, this category includes former talk show host Larry Elder, who ran for governor of California in 2021, and Vivek Ramaswamy, a venture capitalist and author. They’ll make an impact, just like Carson did in 2016, but their campaign strategy is more about making a splash in the media than doing delegate math.

Then there are the also-rans, those candidates with credible resumes and enough experience but who just aren’t going to make any headway this time. Candidates like this in the past have been people such as Lamar Alexander in 2000 or Rudy Giuliani in 2008. For next year, this category consists so far only of Asa Hutchinson, the former governor of Arkansas.

Hutchinson was a good governor who has extensive governmental experience, but he’s only a few years younger than Trump – hardly representing the next generation of Republican talent. Moreover, he represents a strange hodgepodge of positions that will probably have trouble finding much support in the primaries next year: He’s vociferously opposed to Trump but has taken very conservative positions in nearly every policy area. That combination won’t garner him a broad base in either the Republican primaries or among the general electorate. If Chris Christie or Rick Perry end up running again, they’d be right in this group along with Hutchinson, but thus far, he stands alone.


Then there are the other serious contenders, who so far officially consists only of South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Should they decide to join the contest, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin will also wind up in this tier. All of these people are, in essence, traditional conservatives who have been willing to support or have been supported by Trump but who are unafraid to challenge him. This is an important group because while DeSantis is the clearest alternative to Trump, there’s every chance he ends up stumbling at some point, leaving an opening for another candidate.

What’s important next year is for Republicans to avoid a repeat of the mistakes of 2016.

Eight years ago, various other candidates rose at different times to challenge Trump, only to have their flirtation with victory deflated. They were very often derailed not by Trump, but by other candidates who went on the offensive – recall Christie savaging Marco Rubio at the debate. While that effectively derailed Rubio, it didn’t do much to help Christie himself. Instead, the biggest beneficiary ended up being Trump, who watched one rival take down another.

Republican candidates have to avoid that this time around. That’s not to say they should avoid criticizing one another entirely; that would be impossible in any presidential primary. Still, they need to be focused and disciplined about how they do it, instead of taking down a more viable opponent for a moment in the spotlight. They can’t be entirely negative toward Trump, since that won’t play well with Republican voters, but they shouldn’t be doing anything to help him out. Hopefully they’ve learned from last time and avoid repeating the same mistakes.

If they haven’t, Trump will win the nomination again.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
Twitter: @jimfossel

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