Will any Republicans challenge Trump in 2024? DeSantis, Pence and the other top contenders to know

WASHINGTON – Many Republicans are spending the holidays planning for the congressional and gubernatorial elections of 2022 – especially Donald Trump and other Republicans who are thinking of running for president in 2024.

The midterm elections are still more than 11 months away, but the Republican presidential race of early 2024 is well underway, a unique behind-the-scenes contest involving more than a dozen potential candidates and being conducted in the giant shadow of a volatile ex-president named Trump.

While still protesting his loss to President Joe Biden in 2020, Trump plans to campaign for allies and against enemies in 2022. He is also giving out broad hints he may seek the presidency again in 2024 – and the longer he waits to announce, the more others will think about jumping in.

At least ten other Republicans are making the kinds of moves presidential aspirants make:  high-profile speeches, book tours, political organizations, media interviews and visits to early delegate selection states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

But there is also one thing they are avoiding: Nearly all of the prospective candidates have declined to say whether they will challenge Trump directly should he decide to run.

Like most political professionals, they are waiting to see what happens.

"I don't know that he's going to run," former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told CNN. "I don't know whether I'm going to run."

The list of possible non-Trump candidates includes former aides and advisers (such as Mike Pence, Christie, Mike Pompeo and Nikki Haley); a sprinkling of GOP governors (Ron DeSantis, Kristi Noem and Chris Sununu, among others), and some Republican senators (including Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz).

More:In a hypothetical 2024 match, Donald Trump leads Joe Biden by double digits in Iowa Poll

Related:Gloomy landscape for Democrats in midterms as Biden's approval drops to 38% in USA TODAY/Suffolk poll

All would be underdogs to Trump, who leads early Republican polling ahead of 2024.

"You get a lot of people who want Trump to run again," said Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican strategist who is conducting a series of focus groups of GOP voters. "If Trump runs, he freezes the field for most of these candidates, and they don't run."

And how many candidates will there be if Trump doesn't run?

"So many," Longwell said. "A wide open field."

Former VP Mike Pence

Former Vice President Mike Pence has been perhaps the most active non-Trump candidate – despite his historic falling out with Trump.

Pence refused Trump's demands that he toss out Biden electoral votes in certain states as Congress certified the 2020 election, the event that triggered the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Despite continuing criticism from Trump and allies, Pence has set up an issue advocacy organization – Advancing American Freedom – and given speeches in places like Iowa and South Carolina.

Pence has a busy holiday season. Next week, he delivers a speech on his opposition to abortion, one day before the U.S. Supreme Court holds a hearing on the subject. On Dec. 8, he has two events scheduled: a speech criticizing Biden's economic plans and another speech at a state Republican Party fundraiser in ... New Hampshire.

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence at the Republican National Convention on  Aug. 24, 2020, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

When an audience member in Iowa asked Pence who persuaded him to "buck" Trump over the vote certification, Pence responded that it was "James Madison ... father of the Constitution."

Former N.J. Gov. Chris Christie

Christie, the former New Jersey governor as well as occasional Trump adviser, is promoting his presidential ambitions through a tried-and-true tactic: the book tour.

In interviews for his book – "Republican Rescue: Saving the Party from Truth Deniers, Conspiracy Theorists, and the Dangerous Policies of Joe Biden" – Christie has criticized Trump for his false claims about "voter fraud" in 2020.

Christie, who was the first 2016 presidential candidate to endorse Trump after dropping out, has given mixed signals about whether he run against the ex-president. "Let's see who he is and what he says and how he conducts himself," Christie told CNN.

He also said: "In 2021, the idea of making predictions for 2024 is folly."

More:Mike Pence looks at the 2024 presidential race but sees Donald Trump everywhere

Related:Chris Christie writes Mike Pence was stunned on election night – and other not-so-flattering things in his new book

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

Mike Pompeo served as Trump's secretary of state. The former congressman from Kansas has set up a political action committee – "Champion American Values" – to help conservative candidates in 2022 and beyond.

Next year's elections are his focus, Pompeo told radio station KCCI during a September visit to Iowa, and then "we'll turn our attention to the next election after that."

Like other quasi-candidates, however, Pompeo has been meeting with donors and talking like a candidate.

As far back as March, when Fox News host Sean Hannity asked if he would run for president if Trump didn't, Pompeo said: "I'm always up for a good fight ... I care deeply about the American conservative movement for an awfully long time now. I aim to keep at it."

Surrounded by lawmakers, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the end of a legislative session, Friday, April 30, 2021, at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is probably the most prominent of the Republican governors who are pondering presidential bids. The former congressman has been particularly vocal about the COVID pandemic, working against the Biden administration's requirements for masks and vaccinations. He has also echoed Trump's calls for "election integrity."

DeSantis has also downplayed 2024 speculation for a very important reason: He's up for re-election in 2022 in a state that remains closely divided. DeSantis won the 2018 governor's race by less than 1 percentage point.

The publicity surrounding DeSantis' performance as governor has made him perhaps the most high-profile non-Trump candidate. The Florida governor scores well in presidential polls, though he and his aides have discouraged talk about 2024 because of his re-election battle in 2022.

"I’m not considering anything beyond doing my job," DeSantis told Fox News host Sean Hannity recently.

DeSantis' rise in the polls has triggered blowback from Trump and his allies. In an October interview with Yahoo Finance, Trump predicted that most GOP candidates would drop out if he runs, including DeSantis.

“If I faced him, I'd beat him like I would beat everyone else,” Trump said.

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said Donald Trump's actions after losing the election "will be judged harshly by history."

Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley

Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who served as Trump's ambassador to the United Nations, has given mixed signals about Trump and her own prospective candidacy.

In April, Haley told the Associated Press that "I would not run if President Trump ran, and I would talk to him about it,” In October, she told The Wall Street Journal she would consult with Trump when the time comes: “I would talk to him and see what his plans are. I would tell him about my plans. We would work on it together.” 

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem represents a small state but has demonstrated big ambitions.

Noem spoke at a pair of Conservative Political Action Conference meetings this year and has taken swipes at DeSantis and other potential rivals over their commitments to keep states open during the COVID pandemic.

The governor also faces re-election next year and has been subjected to criticism within the state. That includes allegations – denied by Noem – that she inappropriately helped her daughter obtain a real estate appraisal license.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu stands with supporters at a polling station at Windham High School on Tuesday in Windham, N.H.

N.H. Gov. Chris Sununu

The latest governor to enter the 2024 speculation pool is Chris Sununu of New Hampshire.

Sununu surprised Republicans across the country this month by announcing he would not run for the U.S. Senate and adding that he hasn't "ruled out going to Washington" in the future in a "management" position.

While forgoing a Senate race, Sununu has also criticized congressional Republicans for infighting – "I just think they have their priorities screwed up," he told CNN's "State of the Union – and suggested governors like himself should be the new party leaders.

As for the 2024 presidential race, Sununu did not deny interest. "People have asked me about that," he told CNN, but first he must win election to another gubernatorial term in 2022. "We will see what the future brings," Sununu said.

More:If Donald Trump faces criminal charges, analysts doubt it will hurt him with his base in 2024

Related:Budding rivalry pits Greg Abbott against Ron DeSantis in race to the right

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott

Some Republicans have hopes for other GOP governors, includingGreg Abbott of Texas, who has pushed conservative legislation on abortion and voting rights.

Abbott first faces re-election next year, including a Republican primary with at least two vocal conservative challengers. The governor does enjoy the endorsement of Trump himself.

Regarding the 2024 race, Abbott echoes Trump and many other Republican aspirants in saying he'll have to wait and see, a message he has been delivering for more than a year.

“You know, one thing that you know about me, I take one step at a time,” Abbott told talk show host Mark Davis on KSKY-AM in Dallas a year ago. “The first step is to win re-election and after that, Mark, we’ll see what happens.”

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan

If Hogan takes the plunge, he would be a rare Republican candidate: A Trump critic. Hogan has often criticized Trump for his attacks on fellow Republicans, a group that includes the Maryland governor himself.

Hogan is also the rare Republican who says he wouldn't mind challenging Trump directly should both decide to make bids.

“If I decide that I want to run for president, it certainly wouldn’t stop me that he’s in the race, that’s for sure,” Hogan told Politico.

Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas

Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas has been busy giving speeches, endorsing candidates and recruiting people for what looks like a presidential campaign operation, be it for 2024 or beyond.

During a September visit to Iowa, where he campaigned for local candidates, Cotton told Fox News he didn't want to speculate on "far off" elections, but is focused on GOP efforts to win back Congress.

"Those races and further off from that will work themselves out when we get there," Cotton said.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the last Republican candidate to drop out in 2016 before Trump claimed the nomination, has also said he is waiting to see how things play out.

A lot depends on Trump, he said.

During an appearance on CBS' Face The Nation, Cruz said "I have no idea what's going to happen in 2024," and added that Trump "is going to have to make a choice, first of all, whether he's going to run or not. I think if he chose to run, he would be very, very formidable."

The Texas conservative added that, "I can tell you that when I ran in 2016, we came incredibly close. I came in second. There's a long history of runner-ups becoming the next nominee."

Other potential GOP hopefuls: Rubio, Hawley, Tim Scott

Republicans are also talking up potential candidacies of other senators, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a 2016 candidate who recently made a trip to Iowa; Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, who backed Trump's election protest right before the Jan. 6 insurrection; and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the party's highest-ranking Black lawmaker.

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., speaks during the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications' 18th First Amendment Awards at the NH Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College, Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, in Manchester, N.H.

At least one House Republican is also in the speculative mix: Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming.

One of ten House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump over the Jan. 6 riot, Cheney is being challenged in a Republican primary by a Trump-backed candidate. As she campaigns for her job, Cheney is giving national speeches on the need for the GOP to move past Trump.

More:Liz Cheney's anti-Trump crusade will end her career or make her a White House contender

Will He or Won't He?  

Not all of these candidates will wind up running, of course, and probably no more than half will ever take the plunge. Many of the non-Trump candidates are more likely seeking the vice presidential slot.

All of these quasi-candidates will be affected by Trump, who remains the party's most popular politician.

Also its most contentious.

A recent nationwide Marquette Law School poll found that 60% of Republicans want Trump to run for president again – and 40% of GOP members do not want him to run again.

The difference is stark among all potential voters – only 28% of respondents want to see Trump make another run for president, while 71% do not want to see him make another campaign.

While Trump is probably the favorite for the Republican nomination right now, analysts said a lot can change before primary votes are cast in early 2024.

Donald Trump's lawyers are fighting the release of documents related to the riot Jan. 6 at the Capitol.

For one thing, Trump is under investigation by prosecutors in New York for various financial dealings and in Georgia over efforts to pressure state officials into changing election results.

Some of the Republicans who don't want Trump to run again note that he lost the popular vote in two straight elections. Trump also lost the Electoral College to Biden in 2020, but many Republicans down the ballot out-polled him.

"My guess is that there are a bunch of people who want to vote Republican but simply won't if Trump is the nominee," Republican strategist Scott Jennings said.

That said, it looks right now that any non-Trump challenger would have a hard time defeating the ex-president.

"At the present I don't think any would stand much of a chance," Jennings said. "But there's a long way to go between now and then."