The race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination began in earnest on November 9, 2022 — and it could prove far more competitive than most prognosticators think. Baked into the thinking of virtually every center-right commentator, consultant and grifter is the assumption that former president Donald J. Trump will be the nominee. Only Trump opponents and conservative skeptics are even interested in the possibility that someone else will be the choice — and they have largely coalesced around the idea that the sole candidate who could beat the most Florida Man is another Florida Man, Governor Ron DeSantis. Some assume that DeSantis will not challenge Trump, and that if he does, it will be a fool’s errand that splits the populist majority of the party and faces challenging odds against a former president.
Yet history suggests it is wrong to conclude that these are the GOP’s only viable options. Conceding that the two Florida Men loom over the rest of the potential field does not mean this field won’t exist. In fact, there is a scenario where the field is even stronger than the 2016 collection of governors and senators who failed to block Trump from the prize. There is no one with Trump’s stature as the man who beat the GOP and won it over, or DeSantis’s reputation as the best and most media-savvy Republican governor in the country.
But Trump snuck up on the field in 2016. He now has a record to defend, is a known quantity on the debate stage, and could by his very presence turn 2024 into a contest featuring challengers with less to lose and more to gain by presenting themselves as the future. They may be the second tier below the Florida Men, but they are all ambitious politicians with resources, funders and the capability to present a challenge not founded in moral dudgeon or #Resistance fantasies, but framed to win Trump voters to an alternate path.
To forge this possible path, you need a certain list of tools. You have to be friendlier with traditional pre-Trump Republicans, to maintain the significant financial and donor connections capable of funding presidential efforts and, while charting a different path in tone and presentation, be capable of presenting a critique of Trump that has potential to land hard among the skeptical.
The former vice president, Mike Pence, is clearly building the case for such a run. He is touring presidential hot spots around the country and has given several speeches in which he has expressed a traditionalist conservative message. Pence has openly broken with some aspects of Trumpian foreign policy and the revisionist framing of January 6. But Pence is enormously unpopular among voters who turned against him after he affirmed Joe Biden’s election; his approval ratings dropped from above 90 percent to roughly 50 percent among Republicans — and have never recovered.
One possible candidate with increasing momentum is Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin, whose convincing win in a blue-trending state has some national Republicans salivating. In his many media appearances in the past year, Youngkin has been a smiling, happy warrior on many divisive culture-war issues including education, and his background in finance gives him the connections to raise significant dollars. For Republicans who long for a return to normalcy and a less divisive form of governance, he may prove appealing.
The rest of the potential candidates are more notable for their defects than their advantages. Arkansas senator Tom Cotton and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, once touted as future faces of the party, are generally seen as too neoconservative. New Jersey’s Chris Christie may try a comeback tour, but he missed his chance in 2012 and has never recovered. People close to Texas senator Ted Cruz are skeptical he wants to run against Trump again. If South Carolina senator Tim Scott, South Dakota governor Kristi Noem and new ex-Democrat Tulsi Gabbard run, it will be widely assumed their goal is achieving vice-presidential consideration, not a real attempt at the top job.
This brings us to the top dark horse in the field: Mike Pompeo, Trump’s former head of the Central Intelligence Agency and secretary of state, who earned a reputation for a refined version of Republican hawkishness in the America First era. Pompeo has played the bad cop in the field with a proven ability to confront the corporate press, take on ideological critics and win arguments — an essential quality for any candidate in a media-driven era where debate performance, or lack thereof, has proven so meaningful.
Pompeo has made no secret of his ambitions. Visiting Politics & Eggs at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, in September — a mandatory stop for would-be presidential candidates — he circulated and glad-handed, recalling campaigning in the state all the way back in 1992 as he sat at tables to sign attendees’ traditional wooden eggs with the flick of a black Sharpie.
“One of the things that strikes me that is a bit different, and I could be wrong about this, but I think people can now see that this line between foreign and domestic policy — what happens in Beijing matters here, and what happens in Kyiv,” Pompeo says as he signs. “So this line that we’ve drawn is a bit artificial. Real families are impacted by things that happen in tough places.”
This is, in a sense, a summation of the gamble that he can find a path in 2024. Widely known as a warrior on cable-news programs and the Sunday shows, where he delivers stout defenses of the Trump administration’s foreign policy moves, Pompeo’s genial, glad-handing Kansas politician persona is not nearly so familiar to New Hampshire voters.
His physical appearance is new, as well. A large man during his time in the Trump administration, Pompeo’s weight fluctuated noticeably after leaving office. He claims that, as he approached 300 pounds, he invested in a home gym, dramatically shifted his diet away from carbs and lost ninety pounds in a little more than six months. Former staffers say that, as hard as this may be to believe, it’s a classic Pompeo approach: when he puts his mind to something, he does it.
Not everyone buys this rise-and-grind story. The Kansas City Star’s editorial board, not fans of Pompeo generally, even took the step of dialing up top personal trainers to gather skeptical takes about his claims of achieving newfound health through home workouts and switching to egg whites and turkey bacon.
One alternate theory worth considering is the application of the drone strike diet (patent pending). Whatever the case, in New Hampshire, the crowd is nothing but congratulatory.
“Mr. Secretary, I didn’t even recognize you,” said one attendee. “I said: ‘when’s he coming, when’s the secretary coming? Anyone seen him?’”
“Yeah, there’s a little less of me,” Pompeo chuckled as he buttoned his jacket. “The challenge is, it’s the struggle of a lifetime. I went hard at it for seven months because I needed to. It’s a virtuous cycle. You start feeling better, you start wanting to work out, you start pushing away the croissants and all the things that you love.”
The grandson of Italian immigrants, Pompeo grew up in Orange County, California, before heading to West Point to study engineering, graduating first in his class. Asked whether he’ll attend next year’s Army-Navy game in nearby Foxboro, Pompeo reminisced about the game he attended in 1983 as a young cadet at the Rose Bowl — the only time the annual game was held west of the Mississippi (Navy won, 42-13). The cadets were put up in the homes of Pasadena locals and took over Disneyland for a night of raucous behavior.
“They ran a host-a-cadet campaign,” Pompeo said. “What could go wrong? They never repeated that.”
After his stint in the Army as a tank platoon leader, Pompeo went to Harvard Law School, where he edited the Harvard Law Review. He headed to Wichita soon after graduating to start an aerospace company with three West Point classmates and investments from Bain and Koch Industries. The vets consolidated a number of smaller manufacturers and machine shops into Thayer Aerospace, a workforce of 200 tasked with making airplane parts and pressurized doors, named after Sylvanus Thayer, “the father of West Point.”
At just thirty-four, Pompeo was CEO — but a Wichita Business Journal profile from 1998 reads more like a profile of the politician he would become: “Michael Pompeo still gets up early and hits the ground running, just like he did at West Point twelve years ago.”
“Twelve years ago, I was running a machine shop in Wichita, Kansas,” Pompeo said as he took the stage in Manchester, and the benefits of that are clear. He is a rare thing in politics today, with a résumé that seems cut from the old way of doing things. Military excellence, a top law school, business success. Then Congress, then the CIA, then secretary of state. You see why the man believes he could be president. He radiates the energy of a politician who believes he can achieve whatever he sets his mind to.
These days, Pompeo’s speaking tour takes him all over the world. When he showed up in New Hampshire, he had just returned from a trip to Asia, where he visited Tokyo and Taiwan, hearing concerns that Biden’s policy toward the region has been “confusing.”
“The Taiwanese view is that Chinese activity in the strait is the new normal,” Pompeo told me. “It’s an increased level of threat. They’re hopeful the US will match that by building out alliances with South Korea, Japan and Australia. America’s support for the Taiwanese is incredibly important.”
Speaking to New Hampshire voters, he was even more aggressive.
“What more could we and should we be doing to stop China from working with the Mexican cartels? It seems to me it’s almost like an act of war,” one voter said in the question portion, inquiring about the continued prevalence of fentanyl in their community. “There’s so many people dead from this.”
“I’m not sure I’d put ‘almost’ like an act of war,” Pompeo said, before launching into a pent-up indictment of the media and its inaccurate framing of his approach to policy. “CNN ran a piece — I think it was in somebody’s book, there’ve been so many books written — where President Trump was accused of saying he wanted to bomb Mexico. And I said, ‘No, that was actually me!’
“Today the ungoverned space isn’t just in Afghanistan,” Pompeo continued. “It’s a stone’s throw from El Paso. There is no governing rule. There is no sheriff. The cartels are running the place and any law enforcement is on the take. This is deeply dangerous… How might we protect America from ungoverned space on our own border? How do you prevent Xi Jinping from moving drugs into America and putting our nation in decline? What are the tools we might have? And so we begin to think about how we might use the full range of America’s capacity to protect us from these ungoverned spaces. We should renew that.”
The foreign policy portion of his record is known. What will be interesting about Pompeo in 2024 is the degree to which he can capitalize on Republican voters’ lack of awareness of his domestic policy capabilities. In Congress, representing Kansas’s 4th District, he was a reliable cultural conservative. But for people who know him for his national security bona fides, his strength on culture-war issues may come as a surprise.
In New Hampshire, he dealt handily with questions about his state’s abortion referendum, and denounced fears that leaning into culture-war issues could prove problematic for Republicans.
“I fear Randi Weingarten more than Xi Jinping,” he told me. “We cannot teach kids that the country begins in 1619. Combating that is the ultimate security fundamental.”
Here, Pompeo’s tenure in Congress is instructive. One of the sleep-in-his-office set when he was elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010, he was best known for his participation on the Benghazi committee and other prominent foreign policy battles — but he was just as likely to cause fireworks in committee hearings with Obama-era officials like the EPA’s Gina McCarthy or HHS’s Kathleen Sebelius.
“The culture war is an opportunity for him because he’s very strong on it, and people haven’t seen how strong he is,” says a former Pompeo staffer. And you can see that in his responses to basic questions about the Biden administration’s exportation of progressive wokeism.
The true advantage for Pompeo in 2024 may prove to be his Heartland differentiation from the pomposity of the Florida Men and the aggression of the Southern conservatives. Pompeo has run a factory and worked on oilfields. He stresses in his New Hampshire remarks the importance of defeating, not destroying, left-wingers. “Beat them at the ballot box,” is his mantra. This will not satisfy the constituency on the right that favors destruction of the left and all its works, but it will satisfy those who long for a return to a normal Republicanism and conservatism in the wake of a particularly divisive period.
But how would Pompeo handle his former boss? This question looms large in the minds of former employees and colleagues. The general answer amounts to this: he would treat Trump with a certain amount of respect, but go out of his way to provide contrasts in how they would approach the job of being president. In New Hampshire, Pompeo did not hesitate to criticize his former boss over the Mar-a-Lago document raid. “Hold two ideas in your head,” he stressed, outlining why it was both wrong for the former president to abscond with documents that could be a security threat, but also that the FBI raid was wrong and a signal threat to trust in democratic institutions.
As for his ability to fund a run, that remains unclear. He has maintained a working relationship with financiers who matter in Republican circles, and his stiffness in earlier years has given way to obvious comfort in his own skin. He cracks jokes and talks football with ease. To relax, he watches movies — he loves Judd Apatow-style frat-bro comedies — and is a dedicated fan of the Wichita State Shockers, a basketball team with the most obscene mascot in college sports.
To bet on Pompeo is certainly to bet on a dark horse. And while his approach to politics may seem old-fashioned, many political consultants and members of the donor-connected set in Washington think he is underrated because he stands for a fusion that may gain traction among voters who want to move on from the eighty-year-old baby boomers who have dominated American politics since 1992.
“Pompeo’s not going to have a flame-out campaign, he’s not going to embarrass you. He knows how to grind, and he has heft,” said a political insider unattached to any 2024 contender. “His primary hobby is killing terrorists. That plays.”
One question is whether Pompeo represents a return to Bush-era foreign policy, or something older and more Reaganite. Trump’s core critique of Bush’s Middle East wars won over Republican voters who had grown to harbor serious doubts about these missions. But, beyond that critique, Trump offered few specifics. After his elevation to secretary of state, Pompeo was happy to put meat on the bone and, along with Jared Kushner, was key to the achievement that is the Abraham Accords.
In New Hampshire, Pompeo cited the benefits of that deal and his hopes for the future, with the Arab alliances with the Israelis and a unified front against Iran. “We weren’t adventurous. We conducted a very restrained foreign policy. But we were still strong,” Pompeo told me. “When we drew a line, we were very clear we were willing to defend that line.”
He views the Ukraine crisis through a similar lens, one that marks the current war as beginning with Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Crimea. In his understanding, the lesson the world took from the West’s not acting for years is “if you keep the pressure on, if you continue to assert you have a right to a particular place, then the West will lose focus and our resolve will become less and less.”
Pompeo acknowledges that during his tenure, there was talk about how “he’s a hawk, he’s going to start World War Three.” But he believes that this was all about using American power effectively. “I think the American people can see that American leadership matters.”
“There were no new wars on our watch. In fact, we reduced our footprint in Afghanistan on our watch,” Pompeo said. “We should always have a strong and capable military at our back. We didn’t try to upset regimes and their internal dealings.
“We broke a lot of glass, broke a lot of policies, some of which [Biden’s administration has] already reversed,” Pompeo said, acknowledging that much as the Trump administration tried to achieve dramatic change, the foreign policy establishment remains in charge today because it’s too “well-entrenched.”
“We need to make sure the people who come around the next president believe in putting Americans first in foreign policy and understand how to execute” their plans, Pompeo said. He told me that the foreign policy establishment “will not go quietly into the night… You start on day one and you need eight years. This is a project, not a moment.”
As for the big question — will he run, and will he do so even against his former boss? — Pompeo maintains he and his wife have yet to make the decision. “But,” he stresses, “that decision won’t turn on who decides to get in the race.”
In New Hampshire, there’s no question the interest is there in the room. “We hope to see you back in ’24,” said one attendee.
Pompeo chuckled mid-egg signing. “Thank you, you’re very kind.”
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s December 2022 World edition.