Georgia is a state where the 2020 elections haven't ended yet, but the 2024 presidential race may already be underway.
Republicans with an eye on the White House in four years are hitting the trail on behalf of the two Republican senators trying to save their seats in runoff elections, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler.
Among those showing up in recent weeks to lend a hand have been Vice President Pence, Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida, and Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas. Others have helped out from afar, through fundraising and other means, such as former U.N. Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who ran second to President Trump in the 2016 primaries, said he'll be there soon enough.
Since control of the U.S. Senate is on the line in Georgia, it's the biggest political stage for candidates who want visibility and to make some new influential friends in a newly minted swing state, all of which may come in handy for an eventual run at the GOP presidential nomination.
But they could all be overshadowed when Trump travels there to campaign Saturday for Perdue and Loeffler at his first rally since losing the election, including the state of Georgia, to Joe Biden.
It could also represent the first rally of a possible 2024 comeback bid, which some of the president's allies think would box out other Republicans looking to take the mantle in a post-Trump GOP.
None of the aforementioned is an official candidate for 2024 — not yet, anyway. But none is discouraging such talk, and each is on the list of those expected to explore a run seriously.
Why Trump's presence gets complicated
As soon as it was clear that Georgia's Senate races would be decided by runoffs, Republicans in the state urged Trump to hold a rally to help out the endangered incumbents. The logic, according to political scientist Susan MacManus of the University of South Florida, was that even though he'd lost the state, Trump would still drive turnout and ensure successful runoffs for the Republicans.
But that simple plan has gotten complicated.
Angry over his loss to Biden in Georgia, Trump is falsely alleging that the state was stolen from him and that Democrats are guilty of fraud.
Pence had to walk a bit of a tightrope during his visit because of that. He warned of the dangers he sees in a Democratic Senate majority, but he couldn't explicitly acknowledge that the Trump-Pence ticket had lost.
"I can tell you as our election contests continue, here in Georgia and in courts across the country, I'll make you [a] promise. We're going to keep fighting until every legal vote is counted," Pence said.
Trump is angry with GOP officials who have defended the integrity of Georgia's elections. That has set off an internal battle within the state as Republicans choose sides, at the exact moment they need to be unified in the runoff elections.
Against this backdrop, Trump heads to a rally Saturday in Valdosta, Ga., near the Florida state line.
"He's going down there primarily to help these two Republicans who are in very, very tight, nail-biter runoffs," MacManus said.
But Trump's Twitter feed, and even his appearance this week in a 46-minute video address from the White House, have been consumed by his grievances over losing the election.
"The question is will that alienate some people who would just be tired of all of that and say, 'It's just not worth it to me,' and not vote, which is the worst thing that could happen to the two Republicans running," MacManus said, adding it's possible that Trump, by highlighting his own agenda, could do as much harm as he does good.
A frozen field
It's not clear that Trump is set on running again, but there is plenty of reason for him to keep the option open even if he is not, including the ability to raise millions of dollars in donations for a possible run.
It's a difficult situation for other Republicans who want to succeed Trump but may not want to challenge him should he seek the 2024 GOP nomination.
Rick Tyler, a former top official in Cruz's 2016 campaign who is among the cadre of high-profile Republicans who call themselves "never Trumpers," said it's impossible to know what kind of political clout Trump will be able to sustain as a former president.
But he said it does create some real problems right now for others trying to get some early traction. Tyler said it'll be tough for any other GOP hopeful to be taken seriously, to receive real media attention or to get early commitments from talented campaign advisers and fundraisers with a Trump campaign looming.
So, what advice would he give a prospective 2024 candidate about the opportunity created by the Georgia races?
"You have to go," he said. "It's unforgivable not to go. But here's the problem: As long as Donald Trump tries to maintain control of the Republican Party and begins to flirt with a 2024 race on his own, the rest of the field will remain as frozen as a COVID vaccine."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Control of the U.S. Senate will be decided next month in Georgia. Such high stakes have made the Senate runoff elections there a draw for Republicans starting to think about a run for president in 2024. President Trump is headed to Georgia tomorrow, and he's now considering a comeback bid in four years. That is making things complicated for other GOP hopefuls. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: We're used to early, thinly veiled presidential campaign stops in places like Iowa and New Hampshire, not so much in Georgia.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MIKE PENCE: Thank you all for coming out. It is great to be back in the Peach State.
GONYEA: Georgia's runoff and the spotlight that comes with it is the big draw. But the fact that it's a newly minted swing state with lots of electoral votes makes it especially tempting for politicians thinking ahead to 2024. That first voice was Vice President Mike Pence at a rally for Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, the Republicans in the January runoff. Others who have come through on their behalf include Florida Senators Rick Scott and Marco Rubio. Rubio picked up right where the 2020 campaign left off with warnings of violence in the streets and rampant socialism.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARCO RUBIO: What stands in the way of all that becoming public policy in America, even half of it becoming public policy in America? You through your vote in this race.
GONYEA: Other potential 2024 hopefuls haven't yet campaigned in person but are helping in other ways, including fundraising, like former South Carolina governor and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Missouri Senator Josh Hawley. Texas Senator Ted Cruz says he's heading to the state soon. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton has been there. He actually made a reference to absentee mail-in balloting that didn't condemn the practice as fraudulent, the way President Trump continues to do.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TOM COTTON: The eyes of the world are upon you, Georgia. They're waiting to see what happens on January 5 or absentee votes that just went out for him on December 14 when early voting starts.
GONYEA: President Trump heads to Valdosta tomorrow, at a time when he's been verbally attacking top elected Georgia Republicans, the governor and secretary of state. Trump lost Georgia to Joe Biden. He insists that outcome is a result of vote fraud, which has been disproven by a hand recount. The governor and secretary of state both stand by the result. Political analyst Susan MacManus says it's awkward, certainly.
SUSAN MACMANUS: The question is, will that alienate some people who will just be tired of all of that and just not vote?
GONYEA: That's a 2020 worry, but Trump's visit also foreshadows 2024. Even as he still insists he won this year, NPR has confirmed that Trump is seriously considering running again next time. His mere flirting with the idea makes things difficult for Republicans thinking about 2024 themselves. Rick Tyler is a veteran GOP strategist who counts himself among that cadre of so-called never-Trump Republicans. He says it's smart to be helping out with the runoff.
RICK TYLER: You have to go. It's unforgiveable not to go. But here's the problem. As long as Donald Trump tries to maintain control of the Republican Party and begins to flirt with a 2024 race on his own, the rest of the field will remain as frozen as a COVID vaccine.
GONYEA: Tyler says it'll be impossible for any other GOP hopeful to be taken seriously and to get early commitments from experienced campaign staff and donors with the possibility of a third Trump campaign looming.
Don Gonyea, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MELODIUM'S "LACRYMAE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.