If Donald J. Trump were not running for president in 2024, there’s a group of Republicans who could be expected to vie for the White House: the ones Mr. Trump beat in 2016.
Instead, many of these once high-wattage candidates are either skipping the 2024 cycle or have bowed out of national politics altogether. Jeb Bush is mostly a political recluse. Three senators, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, all capitulated to Mr. Trump and became sometimes unconvincing acolytes. After losing re-election for governor in Wisconsin, Scott Walker now runs an organization for young conservatives and hosts a podcast.
None have shown much interest in facing the wrath of Mr. Trump again.
For all of the chatter about how the former president has grown weak politically and is ripe for overthrowing as the Republican Party’s dominant figure, and for all the polling that shows large numbers of Republican voters would prefer that Mr. Trump not run again, the will to challenge him is small, and the few contenders brave enough so far are inexperienced on the national stage.
That has left Mr. Trump as potentially the only Republican candidate in 2024 who has run for president before. The last time an open Republican presidential primary featured just one candidate who had previously sought the office was in 1980.
The relatively small size of the prospective 2024 field of Trump challengers, with several potential candidates dragging their feet on entering the race, may have something to do with the debasing experience of the Republicans who battled him in 2016 and came away with nothing to show for it but insulting sobriquets like Low-Energy Jeb, Lyin’ Ted and Liddle Marco.
“I was just wise enough to see it before everybody else, so I didn’t get a nickname,” Mr. Walker said in an interview of his 2016 campaign, which he ended after 71 days with a warning to consolidate behind one candidate or risk nominating Mr. Trump. “I could see the phenomenon that was Donald Trump going into the 2016 election. And it just took others longer to figure that out.”
Several of the other Republicans who lost in 2016 have made clear that they have absolutely no intention of confronting Mr. Trump again.
“I will always do what God wants me to do, but I hope that’s not it,” said Ben Carson, the pioneering neurosurgeon who became Mr. Trump’s housing secretary after his primary loss. “It’s not something I particularly want.”
Mr. Carson went so far as to say he never wanted to run for president in the first place. “I didn’t particularly want to do it then,” he said. “There were so many pushing me to do it. I said, ‘If people really want me to, I will,’ but it was never anything that I wanted to do. I certainly don’t want to do it now.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis and His Administration
The Republican governor of Florida has turned the swing state into a right-wing laboratory by leaning into cultural battles.
Mr. Cruz, who has said repeatedly that he is running for re-election to the Senate and not for president, predicted last fall that if Mr. Trump chose to bow out, “everybody runs.” And Mr. Walker, in his interview, said he still harbored presidential ambitions — but not right now.
“I’m a quarter-century younger than Joe Biden, so I’ve got plenty of time,” Mr. Walker, 55, said. “But not in ’24.”
Even as the G.O.P. salivates to take on President Biden, many ambitious Republicans sense that it may be wise to wait for Mr. Trump to depart the national scene. This apparent reluctance to join the 2024 field — which early polling suggests will be dominated by Mr. Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida — shows that high-level Republicans still view the former president as a grave threat to their political futures, and see more long-term costs than benefits in challenging him.
Mr. DeSantis, former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina and several other Republicans are angling to topple Mr. Trump, but the expected field will probably fit easily on one debate stage.
Already, personal ambitions are colliding with a desire to avoid fracturing the opposition to Mr. Trump. Warning of “another multicar pileup,” former Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland announced this month that he would not run for president. And Paul D. Ryan, the former House speaker, recently reiterated his call for a narrow primary field.
The don’t-run stance upends decades of political wisdom. Even long-shot presidential bids have provided a path to national relevance and laid the groundwork for subsequent campaigns — or at least cable TV shows. Before Mr. Trump won in 2016, seven of the previous eight Republican presidential nominees had either run for president before or been president — and the other was the son of a president. Mr. Biden won the office on his third try.
Nearly all of the Democrats who ran and lost to Mr. Biden in 2020 ended their campaigns in better political shape than they began them, either with larger national and fund-raising profiles or with consolation prizes that included the vice presidency, a cabinet post, a key Senate seat, Senate committee chairs, influence on the Biden administration and a major platform as a right-wing pundit.
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But Republicans eyeing 2024 appear to see less to gain. They are well aware of Mr. Trump’s cutthroat political approach and his impulse to tear down in personal terms anyone he sees as a threat — even if those traits helped win him the undying loyalty of many Republican voters and created a cult of personality that has at times consumed his party.
Though his political strength has ebbed, he still commands the loyalty of about a quarter of the party’s voters, who say they would vote for him even as an independent candidate.
For the 2016 Republican field, losing to Mr. Trump was a springboard to party obsolescence.
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina became one of Mr. Trump’s most fawning supporters and has endorsed his 2024 campaign. Mr. Rubio, still a Florida senator, is now the fourth most influential Republican in his own state. Former Gov. John Kasich of Ohio and Carly Fiorina, the former corporate executive whose signature campaign moment came in response to Mr. Trump’s denigrating her appearance, emerged in 2020 as surrogates for the Biden campaign in its effort to court moderate Republicans repelled by Mr. Trump.
George Pataki, the former three-term governor of New York, acknowledged in an interview that by the time he ran in 2016, he was past his own viability.
“Politics is about timing, and I should have run before the time I did,” Mr. Pataki said. He explained that he had never considered a 2024 campaign and that most people could plainly see the race was shaping up as a Trump-DeSantis contest.
Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor who has been a confidant, competitor and critic of Mr. Trump, is now one of the few prospective 2024 candidates willing to publicly disparage the former president by name. (Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, who is toying with running, has morphed into a dial-a-quote for Trump criticism.)
In a recent interview, Mr. Christie said presidential campaigns exposed politicians, like Mr. DeSantis, whose experience in the spotlight was limited to smaller press corps in secondary media markets.
“We’ve seen plenty of people just go, whoosh, all the air comes out of the balloon, because they get on that stage and either they’re not smart enough or they’re not skilled enough or experienced enough,” he said.
Mr. Christie is the only other 2016 candidate who has said he is even considering running again in 2024, though an aide to Mr. Rubio said he had not formally ruled it out. Neither man has taken any concrete steps toward building a campaign.
No one else other than Mr. Trump in the current or prospective field of 2024 candidates has run for president before. That is unlike 2016, when the field included Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, the two previous winners of the Iowa caucuses, and Rick Perry, the former Texas governor whose 2012 effort flamed out after he forgot a key part of his signature campaign pledge on a debate stage.
For months, Mr. DeSantis has been the lone Republican who is competitive with Mr. Trump in polls. He has drawn public praise from a flotilla of prominent Republicans eager to move on from Mr. Trump but conscious of how he has transformed the party.
Mr. Bush, a fellow Floridian who as the early front-runner in 2016 drew the harshest attacks from Mr. Trump, emerged last month to heap praise on Mr. DeSantis.
“He’s been a really effective governor,” Mr. Bush said in a Fox Nation interview. “He’s young. I think we’re on the verge of a generational change in our politics. I kind of hope so.”
Mr. Bush did not respond to emails for this article.
As Mr. Bush showed, early strength in a presidential primary can be perilous, especially for untested candidates. Bad first impressions in front of a national audience can doom a campaign and sully a career.
Mr. Christie said the platform he built for himself as governor and in 2016 would allow him to enter the 2024 race late if he chose. He has repeatedly said that Republican voters are tired of Mr. Trump and suggested that there could still be room for a battle-tested late entrant.
“I’ve never seen in my adult life the person who everybody thought was going to be the guy be the guy,” Mr. Christie said. “Conventional wisdom was Jeb Bush was going to be the nominee. He raised $150 million and he was going to win, OK? He got one delegate, I think.”
Mr. Bush in fact took four delegates from Iowa and New Hampshire before dropping out of the race after placing fourth in South Carolina.