NEW YORK (AP) – Both political parties are opening the new year confronting critical questions about the people and policies they want to embrace as the next election speeds up.
The challenges are particularly pressing for Republicans, who hoped to enter 2023 with a secure grip on one, if not both, chambers of Congress. Instead an underwhelming one midterm elections yielded only a slim majority in the House that will reveal stark party divisions this week as California Rep. Kevin McCarthy fighting for the podium. And before the end of the month, the Republican National Committee must resolve its own divisive leadership battle.
A central figure in almost everything is Donald Trumpthe former president who transformed the GOP more than seven years ago and is still struggling to exert his will over congressional Republicans, the RNC and Republican voters just as the next presidential election season begins.
RNC chair Ronna McDaniel acknowledged in an interview that her party’s biggest political challenge ahead may come from within as party leaders navigate Trump’s large role.
“There is so much at stake that we cannot afford to be divided in 2024,” McDaniel said, pledging that the RNC would be neutral in the looming presidential nominating process. “If we are divided, we will lose.”
For now, at least, Democrats appear to be far more united than their Republican counterparts.
But much depends Joe Biden and whether the 80-year-old president will follow through on his plan to seek re-election. If he avoids another term — and a formal announcement could be months away — Democrats would be plunged into a bleak future with no obvious popular alternatives.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanderswho did not rule out another presidential bid of his own, said Democrats are also at a “crucial moment” facing cracks in their delicate political coalition among young people, African-Americans, Latinos and working-class voters.
“It pains me very, very much that we’re seeing more and more working-class people vote Republican,” he said in an interview. “Politically, it’s a disaster, and Democrats need to recognize the serious problem and address it.”
While many voters may be tired of the never-ending campaign that is American politics, especially after a high-stakes midterm election in 2022, the tense dynamic guarantees that the political spotlight will only burn brighter in the new year. If history is any guide, the opening of the presidential primary debates is only seven months away. And the debate stage is expected to be crowded — at least on the GOP side. No fewer than 10 high-profile Republicans are actively weighing 2024 presidential bids in open defiance of Trump, emboldened by the growing belief that the former president is as politically vulnerable as he’s ever been.
Currently, Trump is the only announced candidate in the Republican primary. But a handful of candidates are expected to join in late March, while some higher-profile candidates — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisamong them — believe they may wait until late spring or even early summer to make their intentions known.
Few believe Trump will be easy to topple in a GOP primary. Already, he has begun striking out at potential rivals by name, and he maintains a rock-solid hold among the party’s most active voters, who will dominate GOP primary contests.
Still, voters will have several options in a likely field that includes DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and outgoing Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, among several others. Most have already begun actively courting donors and making connections on the ground in early states on the president’s primary calendar.
Before the presidential nominating process begins in earnest, the GOP must first resolve a contentious leadership battle in the House. And by the end of the month, the Republican National Committee will decide whether to elect McDaniel to a fourth two-year term.
Much of the energy of Trump’s Make America Great Again movement has rallied behind California attorney Harmeet Dhillon in an increasingly ugly leadership battle that will be decided at the committee’s winter meeting later this month after three consecutive disappointing election cycles.
Trump and his loyalists will figure prominently in each of the clashes. But prominent establishment Republicans are pushing back much more aggressively.
Steven Law, a key Mitch McConnell ally, who heads the Senate GOP’s leading super PAC, pledged to “play a much more assertive role” in shaping future Senate contests. That’s just as the incoming head of the Senate GOP campaign arm, Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., suggests his committee will actively play Republican primaries to ensure candidates who can be more competitive with the broader general election audience , moving on. It’s a notable reversal from the committee’s current hands-off practice, which was blamed for elevating candidates who failed to expand their support beyond the base.
On paper, Senate Republicans have big opportunities ahead in red states like West Virginia, Montana and Ohio, where Democrats are up for election in 2024. To take full advantage, however, the GOP must avoid the same “candidate quality” problems that plagued the party in the midterms in November as a slate of deeply flawed Trump-backed candidates lost key Senate contests in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.
“Recruiting is going to be job one starting now,” Law said. “The first step is to do everything we can to get the best possible candidate in the field.”
Law was optimistic that Trump would stay out of the 2024 Senate primary contests because of the needs of his presidential campaign. McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate Republican leader, offered a similar sentiment in a recent interview with NBC News.
“We can do a better job with less potential interference,” McConnell said of Trump. “The former president may have other things to do.”
Meanwhile, Democrats have their own issues to resolve — the most pressing, of course, being whether Biden will seek a second term. He is already the oldest president in American history. Polls suggest that a significant number of voters in both parties do not want him to run again.
The Democratic president, who spent the New Year’s weekend with family in the U.S. Virgin Islands, has said he aims to make a final decision over the holidays.
Biden told reporters the day after the midterms that he intends to run, but that he is a “respecter of fate.” Aides and allies are already preparing for a campaign launch, although they are avoiding overt steps that could be seen as entering. ahead of Biden’s decision-making process.
A formal campaign launch is not expected until the second quarter of 2023, both to maximize the incumbency advantage offered to Biden — so he can try to stay above the political fray as long as possible — and to avoid having to report fundraising during the campaign . historically weak first quarter.
And while a Biden run in 2024 is likely, some Democrats are working to change their minds.
A progressive group has been running ads under the “Don’t Run Joe” banner across Georgia, Michigan and South Carolina in recent days. The ad campaign features Democratic voters denouncing the president as “status-quo Joe” while highlighting his weak poll numbers.
“If he runs, the election is in serious jeopardy,” one voter says of Biden in the new ad, which also begins running on CNN in Washington, DC, on Monday, according to one of the group’s leaders, Norman Solomon.
However, there is no clear democratic alternative if Biden does not run. That may help explain why most Democratic officials are openly calling for the president to run again.
In an interview, progressive leader Rep. Calm down KhannaD-Calif., said he would not challenge the president in a primary, and he discouraged anyone from the party’s progressive wing from doing so.
“At this point, I don’t think a candidacy by anybody would do anything but weaken the president. And why would you want to do that heading into an election that’s going to be close?” he said.
Quentin Wathum-Ocama, president of the Young Democrats of America, has been critical of Biden in the past, but said he is “good” if Biden wants to run again.
While young people aren’t overly enthusiastic about the Biden administration, he said, they feel a “sense of duty and obligation” to support the party because of the threats to democracy that Trump and his allies represent.
“We’re not always going to be super excited, but we’re going to show up as hell,” Wathum-Ocama said. “We’re committed to showing up because we know what’s going to happen next — and it could be something even scarier than what we saw on January 6.”
Sanders insisted that the Democratic Party “must be more than the anti-Trump party.”
The Vermont independent said Democrats in Congress must act with real urgency to address the erosion of working-class voters who are increasingly willing to support Trump and his Republican allies. He urged Senate Democrats to pass a higher minimum wage, among other pro-worker legislation, that would test the new Republican-controlled House’s commitment to working-class voters.
As for his own 2024 intentions, the 81-year-old Sanders, who sought the Democratic nomination for president in 2016 and 2020, said it was not the right time to discuss whether he might launch another bid for the White House.
“I will make a decision at the appropriate time,” Sanders said. “People need to breathe.”
AP White House correspondent Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.