The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) concluded on Saturday with a speech from former President Donald Trump, still considered the heavy favourite (especially by this crowd) for the 2024 GOP nomination.
But while Republicans attending the three-day Trumpfest at Maryland’s National Harbor were certain of who should be at the top of the ticket — even breaking out into chants of “Trump! Trump!” during a speech by his competitor, Nikki Haley — they were far less certain about who the former president should pick as his running mate should he secure his party’s nomination.
It’s a unique question for the once-president. He obviously cannot run again with his former vice president, Mike Pence, who is mulling his own 2024 bid and has publicly broken with his ex-boss on Mr Trump’s most important issue: The certainty of their shared 2020 defeat to Joe Biden. The former president also has far fewer ties with the GOP establishment than he had the last go around or even was able to forge in 2016, meaning that his hypothetical pick for several reasons could likely end up being someone with much stronger ties to the GOP’s far-right activist base.
The Independent spoke to a number of Trump supporters throughout the multi-day gala to gauge interest in various potential running mate choices, and found a few predictable suggestions — as well as some that were downright surprising.
One of the most-frequently suggested picks was Kari Lake, who was one of the figures most in demand from attendees at the Trumpworld spectacle.
The former candidate for governor in Arizona lost the election to Democrat Katie Hobbs in November and now continues, much like Mr Trump, to insist that she actually won and that Ms Hobbs is a trespasser in the seat of power.
On Friday evening, Ms Lake spoke at the Ronald Reagan Dinner in the Potomac Ballroom. Before then, she worked the hallway throughout the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, taking selfies and speaking with supporters. A former news anchor, she emerged on the scene as one of the biggest promoters of the lie that Democrats stole the 2020 election from Mr Trump and subsequently called for the decertification of the election results.
Last month, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled against her legal challenge to have her own election results overturned; a judge called her assertions “quite simply, sheer speculation.”
That hasn’t stopped conservative activists from flocking to see her. At one point during the conference, Ms Lake spoke with Vanessa Horabuena, a speed painter who composed a portrait of the Republican ex-candidate in the style of Rosie the Riveter. One supporter cheered on Ms Lake, calling her “governor”.
“I’ve been hearing quite a bit a few people talking about wanting her to run for press secretary wanting her to run potentially for the VP of Trump, things of that nature and I think that would all the amazing things,” Michelle Tipton, who worked at the booth where Ms Horabuena painted, told The Independent. Ms Tipton said that the proceeds of the painting would go toward Ms Lake’s fees for her legal challenge.
She was far from the only Trump supporter in Ms Lake’s corner. Another was Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart News chief and ex-White House official who is now facing fraud and money laundering charges.
“I think [Trump’s pick] will be a woman and I think he got a lot to choose from,” Mr Bannon told The Independent on Friday. “You got Kristi Noem, you got Kari Lake. You got Nikki Haley, you’ve got Elise Stefanik. I mean, you have 20 possibilities.”
The suggestion of Ms Haley as VP drew notice immediately, given that the launch of the former UN ambassador’s 2024 campaign was marked with a rejection of the gerontocracy that has consumed much of American politics — a direct challenge to both Mr Trump and Joe Biden.
Mr Bannon explained further that while he personally “had never been a huge fan of Nikki’s”, he thought Ms Haley was “competitive” enough to secure the spot and prove an effective running mate.
One man even showed up to CPAC with a custom-made “Trump/Lake 2024” pin which he told The Independent he had made up for the conference. The man, Stephen Robsinon, made the same argument as Mr Bannon in support of the former president picking an “attractive woman” to be his next running mate.
He explained in detail why he didn’t expect Mr Trump to attempt a unity pick with his vice presidential nominee come the conclusion of the GOP primary by selecting Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida. Mr DeSantis is widely seen as the Republican with the most credible chance of beating Mr Trump for the nomination, and is expected to mount a bid in the hopes of doing so in the 2024 cycle. A supporter of both men, Mr Robinson speculated that Mr DeSantis would not have the patience to do what Mr Robinson thought was right: Put aside his own 2024 run in the hope of being Mr Trump’s VP and being “mentored” by the former president for four years.
“I think Trump respects Lake more than he does DeSantis because she’s intelligent, aggressive, and well-spoken,” added Mr Robinson. “And a woman, I think she has a better chance of winning. He’s gonna win anyway. But he could win by a landslide defeat.”
A few former members of Mr Trump’s administration, caught by The Independent as they perused the booths and media circus of CPAC, were able to offer a few suggestions for the veepstakes contest, albeit with some slight hemming and hawing about how far away the 2024 election is.
Ryan Zinke, the former secretary of Energy now back in Congress after his resignation under a wave of ethics probes, remarked that whoever Mr Trump picked needed to recognize that “it’s better to charge up a hill under fire than cower in a foxhole.”
“I’m sure whoever will come up with will be a good pairing on the road for the Vice President. Obviously, [you’re] number two in the chain of command. Gotta be strong.”
Sean Spicer, Mr Trump’s first White House press secretary, urged his former boss to pick someone with broad ties to mainstream Americans — a veiled shot, perhaps, at the notion of picking a far-right conservative. His suggestion? Sarah Huckabee Sanders, his successor as White House press secretary and newly-elected governor of Arkansas.
“I think my former deputy Sarah Sanders is probably high on that list,” Mr Spicer told The Independent.
Pressed further about what a candidate would need to help Mr Trump win swing states like neighbouring Virginia and others that eluded him during his reelection bid (Michigan, Wisconsin, and Arizona), Mr Spicer said: “I think you have to have a broad enough appeal that people who throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia who look at you know, things like whether it’s jobs or military…there’s a lot of different factions throughout the Commonwealth that you got to appeal to.”
Mr Trump’s victory in the 2024 GOP primary remains far from a certain thing — assuming you don’t ask any of his supporters. What is certain, it seems, is that the GOP believes it has a deep enough bench to provide the former president — or whomever does end up being their 2024 nominee — with many options to choose from.
Republicans including Mr Trump and Ms Haley will meet for the party’s first debate in August. Expect that to not only be Donald Trump’s first chance to make his case for continued de facto ownership of the GOP, but the first opportunity for up-and-coming conservatives to have their own auditions for the role of running mate or Cabinet secretary in the hypothetical third Trump term.