MARIETTA, Ga. — The Cobb County Republican Party headquarters is a sparse event space deep in the bowels of a shopping center 20 miles outside Atlanta. Red, white and blue streamers adorn the rafters. Banners with the Statue of Liberty and patriotic messages complete the furnishings.
Greeting guests at the entrance are cutouts of the party’s past and current icons: Presidents Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump.
Appearing there on a recent November morning was the man once considered the GOP’s future, Marco Rubio, Florida’s senior senator. Rubio arrived in Georgia to campaign for the most consequential U.S. Senate races in a generation. As a dutiful foot soldier in Trump’s Republican Party, Rubio declined to look ahead to the next election while the president refuses to concede the last one, insisting to reporters, “We’re not even through with 2020 yet.”
But Rubio’s message for his Georgia audience sounded like he’d thought hard about the current state of America and the kind of campaign that can win across the country.
“Normal people that want to own a home and raise their family in a safe community and retire with dignity, and have a country that’s safe and stable, and give their children a chance at a better life, they’re going to vote against people that are crazy,” Rubio said.
In the weeks since Trump, their party’s standard-bearer lost reelection, the political ambitions of Florida’s top Republicans — Rubio, Sen. Rick Scott and Gov. Ron DeSantis — have shifted precariously. The trio are among at least a dozen Republicans in the conversation to become the party’s next presidential nominee. But how can the Republican Party and its bench of rising leaders plot a path toward 2024 when the figure most revered by its voters wont move on?
For example, Rosemary Chatfield of Marietta watched Rubio’s remarks before joining a protest at the Georgia Capitol in downtown Atlanta. She enjoyed what Rubio had to say, but she had little interest in the presidential aspirations of any Florida politicians.
“I’d just as soon Donald Trump stay in,” Chatfield said, “and one of his children come in behind him.”
It was long expected that Rubio, Scott and DeSantis would have to navigate around each other on the road to a presidential nomination. But Trump’s looming presence from Florida, his new home state, could complicate their maneuverings. It is possible that Trump will run for president again in four years.
“The face of the Republican Party of Florida is still Donald Trump, by far,” said J.C. Martin, chairman of the Polk County Republican Party. “I expect to see him running in 2024, and he’d breeze through the primaries.”
Or, Trump could flirt with the idea for years, freezing the rest of the field, until he eventually anoints a successor, perhaps even one of his children, with a Tweet.
“I can tell you without any doubt that Donald Trump will become the most powerful unelected American in the public arena moving forward,” said Adam Goodman, a national Republican media consultant with deep ties to Florida. “He’ll be able to command tens of millions of people on any issue and any campaign.”
“Do any of these guys look like or resemble Trump and can inherit the Trump mantle?” Goodman continued. “I’m not sure. There’s only one Donald Trump.”
In the early morning hours after Election Day, Republican presidential aspirants received their first test. Despite the hundreds of thousands of votes yet to be counted in key states, President Trump declared victory and proclaimed the election tainted by widespread fraud.
In the Republican Party, what Trump says goes. Breaking decades of American political precedent, no high-profile elected Florida Republican has acknowledged Democrat Joe Biden’s victory.
Rubio came the closest this week, calling Biden “president-elect, " then saying the election results “seem to indicate” the Democrat had won.
Scott has said Trump should exhaust his legal options, and the senator has pushed a bill that would require uniform election standards across the 50 states. This is needed, Scott says, because of “mass confusion and distrust.”
DeSantis has gone the furthest of the three to question the election results, suggesting Midwestern state Legislatures could override the will of the voters in states like Michigan and send Trump electors to the Electoral College. DeSantis’ support for the defeated president earned him the thanks of Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son.
The situation highlights how difficult it will be for Florida’s top officials to stand out while stuck in Trump’s shadow.
Mel Sembler, a prominent Republican donor often courted by presidential hopefuls, said he would advise Rubio, Scott and DeSantis against trying to achieve Trump’s success by mimicking his style.
“Nobody can be an heir to Trump,” said Sembler, who recently had breakfast in his St. Petersburg home with another rumored 2024 hopeful, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas. “He’s got a different kind of personality that is trained with his years on television, and it is very combative. Most politicians don’t do that. Trump is not a politician.”
For politicians not named Donald Trump, it can take years of effort and networking to build a national reputation.
DeSantis has insisted he’s not looking ahead to a presidential run, but nationally, plenty of people are watching his next move. Before the coronavirus hit Florida, the New Hampshire Republican Party was in discussions with Florida GOP chairman Joe Gruters about bringing DeSantis to the Granite State to meet influential party insiders who play an outsized role in choosing the next presidential nominee.
Stephen Stepanek, chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, said he hoped DeSantis would visit the state once the coronavirus had subsided.
“If he does harbor political aspirations beyond governor and he is somebody looking when all of this is behind us ... I’m sure he will focus his attention on states like New Hampshire,” Stepanek said.
New Hampshire holds the first presidential primary and is often visited by prospective candidates dipping their toes in the water. Scott was there in February — not long after he ran a political advertisement in Iowa, another early nominating state — in an appearance that generated national buzz. Stepanek said he knows Scott well and expects him to run for president.
“Being not only a senator but a governor, I think that will work for him in a positive way going forward,” Stepanek said.
When Rubio was asked last week what he saw as his role in the Republican Party going forward, he said it was too early to talk about another national run, though he has told CNN he isn’t ruling it out.
But he is sharing his vision of the post-Trump GOP to national media outlets. In a New Yorker article published right before Trump’s loss, Rubio elaborated about his new theory for government, called “common-good capitalism,” in which the government takes a more active role in guiding the markets to ensure a healthier middle class. After the election, Rubio told Axios, a news outlet popular in the Beltway, that Republicans can’t return to free-market policies or “we’re gonna lose the (Trump) base as quickly as we got it.”
Well before 2024, Rubio and DeSantis face reelection in 2022.
The upcoming Georgia elections may offer a glimpse at what those races could look like. It’s unclear how engaged the president will be in the two Senate runoffs. Since the election, Trump has scarcely appeared in public or made remarks in person. His official schedule has mostly been empty.
Absent Trump, Rubio and Scott told Georgia voters in remarks last week that they had the opportunity to keep American government out of the hands of “radical” Democrats. Rubio warned of socialists and socialist sympathizers in the Democratic Party, and said Republican leaders would stop rioters, looters and calls to defund the police.
“Rarely does a state, rarely do a people get the opportunity you’ve been handed,” Rubio said. “And that is to determine — in a non-presidential race — the very direction of the country.”
Rubio was once rumored to be in the mix to become Trump’s Secretary of State, but now must win reelection to stay in Washington.
U.S. Rep. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican, said he would consider running for the seat if it opened, but after a recent conversation with Rubio, he expects the incumbent to run again.
Rubio was one of Trump’s chief rivals during the presidential primary and he didn’t embrace the president after with the same enthusiasm as other 2016 presidential contenders, like Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Ted Cruz of Texas. Martin, the Polk County Republican, said he wouldn’t be surprised if Rubio faced a primary challenge. Steube, though, advised against that.
“What we need to show from Republicans is our unity,” Steube said. “We want to take the House back and retain the Senate and get the presidency in 2024. Having big fights within our party is not conducive to that.”
DeSantis looks to have a solid path to reelection, despite heavy criticism about his response to the pandemic and the state’s unemployment crisis from Democrats now weighing bids for governor.
It’s unclear who will lead his reelection effort; DeSantis previously jettisoned the political team that guided his campaign to a razor-thin victory in 2018. Still, he remains a political force. After pausing fundraising early in the pandemic, he’s raised $787,000 through his political committee since the start of September and has $8 million in the bank.
Although Scott isn’t up for reelection in 2022, he will be orchestrating Senate campaigns for the GOP through the next cycle as the newly anointed head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The job will give Scott direct access to the party’s biggest donors as he works to recruit and elect Republicans across the country.
The work is already underway. Earlier this month, Scott’s political committee aired a commercial for Georgia voters in which the senator warned: “(The Democrats) plan to take Georgia so they can change America. Their change? Reduce funding for police. Eliminate employer-based health insurance. Pack the Supreme Court. Chip away at our religious and gun rights.”
When Scott held an event in Georgia two days after Rubio, a woman in the crowd yelled to him, “I love your commercial!”
Scott, who quarantined for a coronavirus exposure shortly after, leaned in to kiss a cheek through his mask as a woman called him a “sight for sore eyes.” Then, a man shouted toward Scott, “I love your governor!” Scott let out an awkward chuckle and a mumbled thanks.