Former President Donald Trump has officially staged his comeback – but is this the one Southern California Republicans want?
Nearly seven and a half years (or roughly 2,700 days) since Trump first descended that golden escalator to the tune of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” at his New York hotel, the former president announced a third race for the White House.
Then, Trump’s message was the one that presented itself as the best candidate to defeat the Islamic State group, increase jobs and strengthen the country’s economy.
This time, about 1,200 miles south of Florida, Trump — who is under investigation for his actions surrounding the deadly 2021 Capitol uprising and who allegedly mishandled classified information when he left office – denounced high gas and turkey prices, promised to be “the president who finally fixes education,” and insisted on illegal immigration.
“There’s a part of Donald Trump who is a strong leader in America’s culture war, and people like that,” said Jon Fleischman, a California political strategist.
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Elisha Krauss, a conservative Los Angeles-based commentator who does not support a Trump revival, said there “will always be a small percentage of GOPers, rather in California or across the country, who will be enthusiastic about him.” .
“Some of the loyalty you see to Trump even now is because people really credit him for opening their eyes to corruption and the size and overreach of government,” Krauss said of California supporters. “Even though they’re not outright Holocaust deniers, they don’t want to let him go as a role model or spokesperson.”
Los Angeles County Republican Party Chairman Timothy L. O’Reilly said, “Nearly every Republican celebrates the successful conservative policies put in place while President Trump was in office. Many of our members will be thrilled with his potential return.
Trump’s announcement came fairly early in the 2024 cycle, on the heels of a relatively disappointing midterm election season for the GOP. And there has been speculation about several other Republican officials, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, potentially preparing for a run for the White House.
“Right now is an interesting time for Trump to make an announcement. The election didn’t go the way any Republican wanted it to,” said Fleischman, the former executive director of the California Republican Party.
“I don’t know how the Election Day results directly affect Trump. But I know they indirectly impact him because obviously Ron DeSantis, at least right now, is the other person we’re talking about, and he had an amazing election night,” Fleischman said. “With the rank-and-file party votes, Trump is starting really strong, but … now there’s an eye on Ron DeSantis who maybe wasn’t quite focused on that before. And maybe there’s an opening to say, “I know Trump, but who is this other guy, and what is he talking about, and what’s the secret sauce he found in Florida because I want to win.”
Matthew Beckmann, a UCI political science professor, called the Republicans’ horizon “hazy.”
“It’s easy to imagine Trump re-establishing himself as the obvious party standard-bearer, and it’s just as easy to imagine him becoming a visible but marginal player,” Beckmann said. “That’s why Trump’s announcement puts his fellow Republicans in a tough spot right now. It forces them to pick a horse long before it’s clear who else might be running, let alone winning.
When Trump, now 76, first ran in 2016, he faced off against a slew of Republican primary candidates — which ultimately worked in his favor.
“It’s hard to see the rest of the potential candidates coalescing behind one of them, so it’s entirely possible that Trump could once again benefit from the split loyalty of non-Trump Republican voters,” said Dan Schnur, professor. of politics at USC.
Many Republican leaders in California have already chosen a cautious path when discussing Trump’s candidacy — and it’s easy to see why. He’s a leader who has demanded abject allegiance — meaning current and future politicians will have to carefully balance the support of the former president and an electorate who may not be too fond of Trump.
This balancing act was evident in the recent midterm elections in Southern California. The former president made no endorsements in some of Southern California’s most closely watched congressional races and was absent from campaign rallies. (Trump backed Reps. Darrell Issa and Ken Calvert in the primaries, a spokesperson for his PAC said.)
And several statewide Republican candidates, like Attorney General nominee and Comptroller Lanhee Chen Nathan Hochman, have publicly revealed that they did not vote for the former president. (Hochman and Chen both lost their races halfway through.)
CAGOP spokeswoman Ellie Hockenbury said the state party would remain neutral as it does not endorse in-person primaries.
“We would be lucky to have one of the outstanding Republican leaders who might decide to run for president over Joe Biden and Kamala Harris whose record of accomplishments includes soaring inflation, record gas prices, crime rising and failing schools,” Hockenbury said.
Annine Madok, vice president of the Pacific Palisades Republican Club, also said her organization would support whoever the Republican candidate is in 2024. And her focus is more on Republicans running in state and local races.
“The focus should be on Southern California racing and making Southern California a more livable and better place for everyone,” Madok said. “Issues like crime, homelessness and corruption need a local solution and deserve focused local and statewide attention.”
But for John Berry of the Redlands Tea Party Patriots, another Trump campaign is welcome.
“Trump has proven on the international stage that he can deliver for our country,” Berry said. “No other president since Ronald Reagan can match Trump’s accomplishments.”
But as Krauss pointed out, the 2024 Republican nominee could be decided long before California voters can weigh in due to the primary schedule. “The moment it happens to us, we leave with the person who has already been decided,” she said.
For Republicans to ultimately win, messaging will have to matter, said Teresa Davis Morgenstern, author and former Trump administration official.
“Republicans are winning on the issues of promoting freedom, reducing inflation, improving the economy, reducing crime, and empowering parents in education. People want good government competent,” she said. “They also don’t want distracting, exhausting behavior. Tone matters to sway suburban voters. If members can stay on message, Republicans will do well in 2024.”
Those sentiments are true for Rick Reiss, a Temecula resident who said he was “rather heartbroken” by Trump’s previous remarks about DeSantis and the GOP Virginia Gov. Glen Youngkin. But he said he was “surprised and impressed” by Trump’s announcement speech overall, which he saw as devoid of attacks on the two Republican governors and instead focused on his own record.
“I can say that I’m cautiously optimistic, and there will no doubt be a lot of excitement and intrigue in the future to come,” Reiss said.
Whatever Trump’s 2024 candidacy brings to Southern California Republicans or the former president, Schnur summed it up: “I hope everyone enjoyed the few hours they had between the end of the 2022 campaign and the start of the 2024 election cycle.”