Early this month, a long list of Republicans stood poised to lead the party forward after yet another crushing White House defeat. The GOP would have a menu of options to take on Hillary Clinton in 2020: the hard-edged conservatism of Ted Cruz, the lofty oratory of Marco Rubio, the earnest wonkery of Paul Ryan or the brawny national security vision of Tom Cotton.
Instead, the GOP’s crowded bench of 40-something upstarts will have to remain seated. Their short-term presidential hopes have been essentially extinguished by Donald Trump’s conquest of both the Republican Party and Clinton.
And barring a first-term collapse of the first-time officeholder, it may be several White House election cycles before they have another shot. In the interim, waves of new GOP lawmakers will come to Congress to put their own stamp on the future of the party.
For now, the next generation of GOP leaders is left to implement the agenda of a man many of them opposed, to one degree or another, for the presidency.
“I would hope and I would believe that all of our senators, no matter what their future may hold, are more excited about the potential to get things done than they would be about any alternative,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of Senate GOP leadership. “There’s a really good feeling in our conference. And that includes the people [who] at some point in the future may see themselves as a candidate for president.”
The advantage of youth, of course, is they can afford to wait out the Trump presidency for another opening. Cotton is only 39. Rubio, Cruz, Ryan and Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Cory Gardner of Colorado are all in their 40s. Sens. Tim Scott and Rand Paul, meanwhile, are in their early 50s.
Cruz appeared almost certain to run in 2020 if Trump lost, Rubio only slightly less so as he deflected questions about whether he would serve a full six-year term. Each senator had built early-state political operations that could have been quickly activated again for a repeat White House run.
Now, it’s wait and see for them like everyone else.
“Both of those gentlemen are young enough to run after two terms, and there are other senators in that category as well,” said Orrin Hatch of Utah, the most senior GOP senator. “We have a good bench here.”
Cruz has been floated as a possible Supreme Court appointee, chatter he said he’s “humbled” to hear. But if that doesn’t materialize, the Texas senator, who’s favored to win reelection in 2018, says he’ll devote himself to holding Trump and the Republican Congress accountable to their campaign promises.
“The American people have entrusted Republicans with control of the White House, the Senate and the House. That happens very rarely,” Cruz said late last week. “We now have a responsibility to stand up and deliver.”
Though he won’t say it, Cruz’s skeptical stance could position him to run in 2020 if Trump’s first term is seen as a failure, particularly among staunch conservatives who preferred Cruz to begin with. But he added that he won’t just be a bystander: He says he is “committed to doing anything I can to work with the new administration” to repeal Obamacare and cut regulations.
In an interview, Rubio insisted he’d never viewed Trump’s win as trampling on his own prospects. Still, many Republicans assumed Rubio’s compelling bio and relative popularity among Latinos would make him an appealing option to take on Clinton if she won. During the primary this year, many Democrats most feared Rubio as a potential general election opponent.
But now he’s back to being the junior senator from Florida. Rubio said questions about his future “don’t really run my life or the way I do things” and that he prefers to work with Trump rather than serve as a check on him.
“That’s what we hope for,” he said.
As Trump trailed Clinton for most of the general election campaign, Cotton seemed to be laying the groundwork for a future national campaign. He barnstormed key early voting states such as Iowa and Nevada (which also had Senate races this year) and spoke to the Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire delegations at the Republican National Convention.
A veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Cotton has been floated as a potential secretary of defense under Trump. In a phone interview, though, he seemed more enthusiastic about working in the Senate to curb low-skilled legal immigration, build a border wall and boost military spending than serving in Trump’s Cabinet.
The national security hawk also notably avoided criticizing Trump for his conciliatory tone toward Vladimir Putin and Russia.
“I would rather not have to be a check of a president of any party,” Cotton said. “I’ve done it a lot for Barack Obama, I’ll do it a lot less for Donald Trump.”
Paul is taking a different approach, publicly threatening to scuttle a nomination of John Bolton or Rudy Giuliani for secretary of state. Though he’s dialed back his previous description of Trump as a “fake conservative,” Paul is making clear he has no plans of laying down for a Republican president.
“I’ll be the same person I was under President Obama. I won’t change at all,” Paul said.
Ernst seemed relieved after Trump’s win.
Mentioned during the campaign as a potential VP pick before Mike Pence won the job, the Iowa senator can now concentrate on mastering the ins and outs of the Senate without having her every out-of-state trip dissected for political meaning (there was one to New Hampshire just a few weeks ago).
“I love it,” Ernst said of her relative anonymity these days.
Ernst, Gardner and Cotton are all up for reelection in 2020, so Trump’s win makes their decisions about the future a little easier. Gardner is leading the National Republican Senatorial Committee for the 2018 election cycle, which could burnish his standing with party activists and donors, especially if the GOP adds to its majority. Sasse, who is also in their class, opposed Trump during the campaign and now says he will work with him when he can and not be a “knee-jerk critic.”
As for Scott, there are rumors that he’d pursue a gubernatorial run in 2018 and succeed Nikki Haley rather than stay in a Senate crowded with big names. Asked during a brief interview whether he’s on his way back to South Carolina, Scott smiled and shook his head.
“I don’t know about all of that,” he said.
Katie Glueck contributed to this report.
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