Two and a half months after the midterm elections, traditionally the starting point for the next presidential election cycle, former President Trump’s the only major Republican to declare his candidacy for the GOP nomination.
But behind the scenes — far from the spotlight and media headlines — likely and potential Republican White House hopefuls are making moves, which include apparent elbowing between some of the more well-known contenders.
On Friday, former Vice President Mike Pence’s team nabbed a top adviser to a likely rival for the nomination — former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who served alongside Pence in former President Donald Trump’s administration as ambassador to the United Nations.
Tim Chapman, who had been working as executive director of a political advocacy group aligned with Haley, joined Pence’s team to serve as a senior adviser on the former vice president’s Advancing American Freedom non-profit.
“I am grateful for my time working with Nikki Haley and her dedicated team,” Chapman said in a statement.
Chapman’s working relationship with Pence dates back two decades to when he served at the conservative Heritage Foundation and Pence was a congressman from Indiana.
“Advancing American Freedom is one of the fastest growing and increasingly influential conservative groups in the nation, and I am thrilled to join the incredible team that is building AAF as a leader for commonsense conservative policies that will help restore America,” Chapman said.
Pence described Chapman as “one of the brightest stars in the conservative movement, and we are so thrilled he’s joining the team to advance the cause of American culture, American opportunity and American leadership.”
Team Haley released a cordial statement, with Betsy Ankney of Haley’s Stand for America PAC saying, “Chapman is terrific, and we’re happy he found a great spot to continue to advocate for conservative policy ideas.”
But the pilfering of Chapman comes as the likely contenders are starting to recruit and staff up not only in their headquarters but also in the crucial early voting states, like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, which hold the first four contests in the GOP 2024 presidential nominating calendar.
Pence was seen by Fox News during his visit last month to New Hampshire walking to meet with a couple of seasoned Republican strategists and operatives.
“Whether it’s New Hampshire, Iowa or South Carolina, there’s always a finance component, a press component and a political component,” a source in the former vice president’s wider political orbit told Fox News. “A big part of that political component is spending time building relationships with the folks in these early states that know how to get things done.”
The recruiting and staff building is a time-honored tradition in presidential politics.
“There’s a finite pool of talent for presidential campaigns available, and in large, multi-candidate fields there’s intense competition for them. You see this before every presidential cycle when there’s an open shot at the nomination,” Ryan Williams, a longtime Republican consultant and veteran of multiple presidential campaigns, told Fox News.
“Additionally, even though President Trump starts as the front-runner for the Republican nomination, there’s a lot of trepidation among staffers about working for him. He’s been volatile in the past, and staff haven’t always ended their service with him on great terms. So there’s a desire to look at some of the other candidates in the field and jump on board.”
Williams emphasized that “now’s the time. We’re early in the process. People who join now are going to get some of the top positions and reap the benefits if the candidate goes on to win the nomination and the White House. The earlier you get in, the more upside you have.”
Pence and Haley may soon be facing off on the campaign trail.
The former vice president, who’s crisscrossing the country on a book tour for his new memoir “So Help Me God,” has been making the moves needed ahead of launching a presidential campaign.
And Haley, who’s long publicly mulled a White House run, said a few days ago in an interview on Fox News’ “Special Report” that “I think we need a young generation to come in, step up and really start fixing things. …Can I be that leader? Yes, I think I can be that leader.”
Behind the scenes, there’s been strained relations between some in the Pence and Haley camps dating back to the 2020 Trump-Pence re-election campaign, when rumors surfaced that Haley would replace Pence as the president’s running mate.
Former Trump Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who’s also likely to launch a presidential bid, mentions in his upcoming autobiography the suggestions Haley was behind the jockeying to potentially replace Pence.
Haley, in her Fox News interview with Brett Baier, called such claims “lies and gossip.”
Asked about the episode and the latest comments, a source in Pence world wrote “lol” in responding to Fox News’ Rich Edson.
Trump’s poll position
More than two years after his 2020 election defeat at the hands of Joe Biden, Trump remains the most influential politician and ferocious fundraiser in the Republican Party. Until recently, he was the clear and overwhelming front-runner in the early 2024 GOP presidential nomination polls.
But in a handful of public opinion polls released last month, Trump trailed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential Republican White House hopeful whose standing with conservatives across the country has soared the past three years.
Last week, after the release of a new slate of surveys that indicated the former president holding a double-digit lead over DeSantis and the rest of the possible GOP nomination field in hypothetical primary matchups, the main Trump-aligned super PAC touted the results.
“Multiple polls conducted this past week show President Trump with a commanding lead over the field of potential Republican presidential primary candidates. Poll after poll confirms that President Trump is the leader of the Republican Party,” a Make America Great Again (MAGA) Inc. release to supporters argued.
Following November’s elections, the former president took plenty of incoming fire over his role in the GOP’s lackluster performance in the midterms due to his elevation of polarizing candidates who lost key statewide races. He received some unfavorable reviews following his mid-November campaign launch at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, and faced plenty of criticism over controversial comments and actions the past two months.
But with recent electoral history as a guide, it’s politically unwise to count Trump out.
“Saving America from Joe Biden and the Democrats is going to take bold leadership and transformative change — it’s not a job for untested career politicians,” MAGA Inc.’s Taylor Budowich argued in a statement to Fox News.
“President Trump will not only dominate the Republican primary, but he will unite the nation around his America First agenda that produced generational economic prosperity, global peace and safe communities. MAGA Inc. will ensure any RINOs or self-serving politicians who decide to challenge President Trump are exposed and their political futures are extinguished for good.”
Trump holds his first 2024 campaign event of the new year next weekend in South Carolina.