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Last week, during a 51-minute interview on “The John Fredericks Show,” a radio program syndicated across Virginia, former President Donald J. Trump dodged a half-dozen opportunities to say whether he is planning to run for president once again in 2024.
Mr. Fredericks, who alongside his radio gig also served as a chairman of Mr. Trump’s campaigns in Virginia, began questions with “If you’re inaugurated as president again in 2025,” and “I think you’re going to run and win in 2024.” He asked, “How many seats do the Republicans have to win in 2022 to inspire you to run in 2024?”
Hard-hitting journalism this was not.
Still, it did cut to the heart of the biggest question in Republican politics: When will Mr. Trump announce his plans for 2024?
For months the best working theory had been that he would wait as long as possible, both to freeze the rest of the potential 2024 Republican field and to keep as much attention as possible on himself, his endorsements and political proclamations.
In the meantime the former president has not found any new outlet for his political attention. There’s no library in the works or legacy project like President Barack Obama’s nonprofit group Organizing for Action (which itself shuttered in 2018 after fading into obsolescence). Mr. Trump is still very much invested in his own false claims about the 2020 election, pushing local Republican officials to audit their ballots and voting machines while trumpeting the phony idea that any election that Democrats win is a fraud.
All of that puts him on the same page as much of today’s Republican electorate.
“If Donald Trump runs in ’24, I think he’ll clear the field, be the nominee and I think he wins handily against Biden or Harris,” said Representative Jim Banks of Indiana, who as the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee has hosted almost every potential non-Trump candidate to speak to his group of more than 150 Republican House members this year.
Mr. Banks is hardly agnostic on the subject of Mr. Trump. His Capitol Hill office is filled with Trump memorabilia, including a framed front page of The Washington Post from the day after the former president’s first Senate acquittal on impeachment charges, autographed by Mr. Trump himself. In January he voted against accepting the results of election, and in July he was one of two Republicans whom Speaker Nancy Pelosi refused to seat on the commission investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. He has on his staff the son of Tucker Carlson, one of the most vocal pro-Trump hosts on Fox News.
In our conversation on Monday afternoon, Mr. Banks, who said he was in weekly contact with Mr. Trump, said he hadn’t directly discussed if or when the former president might begin a 2024 campaign. He hadn’t been told by Mr. Trump, as Representative Jim Jordan said last week in an exchange recorded by a hidden camera, that the former president was “about ready” to announce another campaign.
All that leaves the field of would-be Republican presidential candidates frozen. Those taking steps that could lead to a 2024 run include Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Kristi Noem of South Dakota; Senators Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio; and the former Trump cabinet members Mike Pompeo and Nikki Haley. They each owe varying levels of political allegiance to Mr. Trump; polling shows none of them would be much of a threat to dent Mr. Trump’s hold on the party even if they tried.
At the same time, Democrats, fretting about President Biden’s sagging standing in public opinion polls after the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, would generally be thrilled to make what is shaping up to be a challenging midterm election next year a referendum on Mr. Trump. The president’s party almost always loses dozens of seats in the House during the midterms; Democrats picked up 41 seats in 2018 and Republicans flipped 63 in 2010.
For the moment, there are signs that Republicans are more energized across the country. They’re inundating school board meetings to talk about how race is taught in classrooms, and in some parts of the country they’re filling candidate training rooms at a pace not seen since 2009.
A potential third Trump campaign, started more than three years before the next presidential election and 18 months ahead of the next Iowa caucuses, could refocus all of his party’s energy onto himself and away from the right-wing cultural issues other Republicans see as political winners.
“He brings excitement among the Republican Party base that is unmatched by anybody else,” Mr. Banks said.
Yet Mr. Banks had no public advice for Mr. Trump about when, or if, to begin another campaign. Mr. Trump would help Republicans in the midterms equally as a candidate or a noncandidate, Mr. Banks said, before adding that Republicans’ odds of winning back the White House would not be diminished whether Mr. Trump, or anyone else, was the nominee.
“He’s savvy enough to know the right timing better than I do,” Mr. Banks said of a potential Trump campaign launch. “I’m watching all the same news and watching all the rallies that you are. I’m speculating that he’s moving in that direction.”
The state of the California recall
California is down to the final week of voting before the Sept. 14 recall election of Gov. Gavin Newsom. You’ll surely see a lot of California political news between now and next Tuesday: President Biden is planning a campaign stop for Mr. Newsom, a fellow Democrat, White House officials said, part of a party-wide rush to encourage Californians to return the ballots every registered voter in the state has received in the mail.
In a state Mr. Biden carried by 29 percentage points last year, even a narrow victory for Mr. Newsom would send shock waves through Democratic politics. If Mr. Newsom is recalled and replaced with a Republican, expect an unending rending of garments and blame-casting among liberals comparable in recent memory only to the reaction to Mr. Trump’s victory of 2016.
Should a Republican take control of the governor’s office in America’s largest state — home to its largest population of Democratic voters — that person would still face Democratic supermajorities in the State Legislature but would be in a position to appoint state judges, control the bully pulpit and potentially name a replacement for a United States senator, potentially shifting control of the 50-50 chamber.
Whatever happens for Republicans, the California recall is the equivalent of found money. They either win a stunning upset, come close and spook Democrats into a period of soul searching, or lose by a comfortable margin, in which case they will still have forced Mr. Newsom into running for his political life a year before an expected re-election campaign in 2022.