With Donald Trump holding a commanding lead on the rest of the 2024 GOP field, you’d think everyone else would focus on the frontrunner. And with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis being the only Republican within striking distance of Trump, you’d think the former president would train his attention on him.
But there’s a dynamic developing among Republican candidates—one in which GOP longshots avoid potentially ostracizing Trump supporters, and Trump doesn’t focus exclusively on trashing DeSantis.
Call it the punch-down primary, where candidates are all going after competitors who are polling well beneath them.
Team DeSantis is going after Nikki Haley over defending “Woke Disney” and “the sexualization of children.” Haley seems to have her eyes on taking down fellow South Carolinian Tim Scott. And Trump—while a frequent critic of DeSantis—seems to be criticizing much of the potential field.
Late last week, the former president laid into New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu’s backyard and humiliated him in front of a crowd of nearly 2,000 MAGA diehards—just because he could.
“Everybody wants to pile onto the weakest link,” a former Trump 2016 senior campaign official and longtime GOP strategist told The Daily Beast. “So I think what these other candidates need to do is obviously not go after Trump directly and piss off the MAGA base, but going after kneecaps for the weakest links in the field.”
So far, that’s been tricky to navigate “because there’s such a big gap right now between the frontrunner and the No. 2,” a second GOP strategist told The Daily Beast.
Part of the dynamic is practical. The Trump competitors would like as small of a field as possible, hoping to consolidate the anti-Trump vote into their camp. Trump, meanwhile, benefits from the largest field possible, meaning any efforts from Team DeSantis to paint the primary as a two-way race or other attempts to consolidate around a Trump alternative will be met with a show of force.
Part of the already cantankerous primary is also style. Republicans have grown accustomed to the bare-knuckled brand of politics, where only the strongest and fiercest politician survives. Attacking other Republicans in the field—while largely leaving Trump be—reflects the rhetorical need to bully someone, and show voters that their attacks can be effective.
But going after Republicans not named Trump is also reflective of the electorate. GOP voters still overwhelmingly support Trump, and turning off his voters by relentlessly jousting with the former president could be a recipe for turning off the very voters you’ll eventually need.
DeSantis’ brief attempts at attacking Trump “have been very lame, and I don’t think anyone in Republican politics since 2015 has landed a heavy hit on Donald Trump in a primary,” the Republican strategist said, pointing to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio as an example of what happens when a conventional candidate tries to beat Trump at his own game.
“When he went after Trump in 2016 talking about his hands, people were like, ‘Eh, we don’t like that.’” this strategist continued. “So when you try and get in the gutter with Trump, people don’t like it. But when Trump does it, people like it, because when he does it, it looks natural. He’s just the bully, right?”
Another factor, both strategists added, is the baked-in assumption that the MAGA base won’t go anywhere. The result has been a rebooted version of the early stages of 2016—just with more stasis in the early polling.
“You saw this in 2016, and now 2024 where people took aim at the guy who was in second or third,” the second GOP strategist added, requesting anonymity to avoid involving other clients. “So I think if you’re Haley, you’re trying to get yourself in a position where you’re competitive for that No. 2 spot going into the debates and, long term, heading into Iowa and New Hampshire before a boost in South Carolina.”
There’s just one problem for Haley.
Sen. Scott, who is still technically testing the waters and not an official candidate yet—despite coming awfully close by immediately breaking one of the most basic rules for exploratory committees—would take votes largely at Haley’s expense in the Palmetto State primary if they’re both on the ballot.
“There’s gonna have to be a scandal to get him out of her way,” the former Trump campaign official said, to the extent GOP primary voters “give a shit about scandals anymore.”
There is, however, what some Republican campaign consultants derisively refer to as “the donor lane,” where there’s blood in the water after several DeSantis donors have publicly and privately said they’re on a pause.
“Tim Scott being in the race is actually the worst thing for both DeSantis and Nikki Haley,” the Republican free agent said. “Trump isn’t gonna attack Tim Scott the same way he’s gonna attack DeSantis, and I don’t think Tim Scott is gonna really take aim at Trump.”
Scott’s presence “in some ways, is like a contribution to Trump” by saddling DeSantis and Haley with another battle front heading into South Carolina and for “the 2 spot,” the GOP strategist added.
But Haley is already taking incoming from DeSantis’ campaign-in-waiting.
Dubbing Trump’s former United Nations envoy “Mickey Haley” in a six-figure ad buy in South Carolina, Never Back Down—DeSantis’ primary super PAC—hit back at her for suggesting Disney relocate to the Palmetto State.
DeSantis’ people going after Haley over Disney serves two purposes: It’s an attack on a competitor, but it also furthers DeSantis’ own war with Disney, establishing that the Florida governor, who was married at Disney World, is no Disney Adult.
“It’s a bad strategy to defend Woke Disney when they decided to defend the sexualization of children,” Erin Perrine of Never Back Down told Politico in a statement about the PAC’s attacks on Haley. ”It’s mind-boggling any Republican would side with a massive corporation that has an unprecedented level of self-governance over protecting children and families, but I guess 2023 is a strange time.”
The Haley campaign brushed aside the groomer-adjacent rhetoric from the DeSantis PAC.
“Nikki is decisive and doesn’t wait around to see what other candidates are doing,” Nachama Soloveichik, Haley’s campaign communications director, told The Daily Beast in a statement. “Since she announced, Nikki has held 25 events in Iowa and New Hampshire, met with thousands of voters, raised $11 million, visited the southern border, and put out policy plans on immigration, spending, and competency tests for politicians. Good luck to the other folks trying to catch up.”
There are, of course, some counterexamples to the punching down, such as Asa Hutchinson trying to dogpile on DeSantis over his feud with Disney, and Chris Christie very explicitly going after Trump. But miraculously, Christie finds himself without much backup.
Perhaps the most peculiar case of punching down in the 2024 field is the rapidly escalating feud between Trump and New Hampshire Gov. Sununu, once again between an official candidate and a prospective one.
After citing former presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush not debating primary opponents, Trump—who is very much not an incumbent president—began tearing into Sununu during his return to the Granite State on Thursday in Manchester.
Trump called Sununu “a nasty guy” who “wants to play games with running for president,” ginning up the crowd to boo a governor who has consistently been the fifth most popular in the country and the only Republican elected statewide in the last two cycles.
The former president’s comments left some top New Hampshire Republicans aghast, but others saw it as a badge of honor for Sununu.
“I just picture him being in his office having a little snicker over it,” a high ranking Granite State Republican told The Daily Beast. “He is his own brand. That’s one of his greatest strengths… These other people are trying to decide what brand they are.”