Politics

Trump’s Veepstakes

With presidential primaries, it ain’t over till it’s over. Still, given the Republicans’ enduring devotion to their MAGA king, it’s best to mentally prepare oneself for the likelihood that the guy who has long been the prohibitive front-runner will, in fact, win the nomination. And a particularly juicy part of that preparation is obsessing over who Donald Trump will pick as his new pain sponge — erm, running mate — and what that choice could tell us about his strategy and state of mind this time around.

Will Mr. Trump go with a white man who has displayed MAGA fealty? That would be the easiest, most comfortable fit for a guy who favors unchallenging mini-mes. Many people think he should go bolder, picking a Latino or Black man — paging Tim Scott! — in an effort to deepen the inroads he has already made with these demographics.

And then there is the woman option, which is the one that most intrigues me.

The Trump years have not helped the G.O.P.’s longstanding lady troubles. Many suburban soccer moms and other moderate Republican women aren’t so crazy about the former president’s ultratoxic politics. And the Trump-stacked Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in 2022 did little to improve the situation. Could a woman on the ticket help Mr. Trump win back some of these defectors, who may have soured on President Biden? Even if some women could not bring themselves to go full Trump, might they at least feel less driven to turn out to oppose him? Also, how pro-MAGA could a female V.P. pick be and still serve as a bridge to non-MAGA women? How non-MAGA could she be and still satisfy Mr. Trump?

I am not the only one noodling over such matters. Steve Bannon, part of Mr. Trump’s original political brain trust, in an appearance last month on “The Sean Spicer Show,” said he thinks Mr. Trump will choose a female running mate this time and ticked through multiple boldfaced names he considered promising options: Kristi Noem, Elise Stefanik, Kari Lake, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Nancy Mace and Marsha Blackburn. He also declared Nikki Haley a nonstarter, warning that she would be “a viper” in the administration and vowing that any attempt to “force” her onto the ticket would lead to a big fight.

A serpent in the Trump garden! How delicious. How biblically twisted.

While obviously not the only women in the possible selection pool — in fact, I feel compelled to toss in Marjorie Taylor Greene — several of these are among the most discussed. Each brings with her a unique mix of pros and cons, in terms both of the more traditional measures by which running mates are often chosen and of the Trumpian particulars. So many factors to consider. So much to process. Here is a handy tip sheet, with an eye toward what each possible veep candidate says about Mr. Trump himself.

Kari Lake. The former TV news anchor, former nominee for governor of Arizona and current Senate candidate clearly has the right stuff when it comes to MAGA zeal. It’s hard to find a Republican player with more passion or flair for promoting election-fraud claims. She is super media savvy, which Mr. Trump considers important, not to mention easy on the eyes — which we could all pretend doesn’t matter to him, but why bother? (Slamming a woman’s looks is a go-to Trump move.) She clearly knows how to throw a political punch, which is a quality generically valued in running mates and certainly one Mr. Trump fancies. She also hails from a crucial swing state, which once upon a time was considered a plus, though these days, who can say?

She has no experience in public office, though, and little credibility with major donors or other establishment players. She is unlikely to hold much appeal for non-MAGA voters. And as weird as it sounds, she may be a smidge too flamboyantly Trumpy. Because the one thing you never want in a No. 2 — and which Mr. Trump in particular cannot abide — is someone who threatens to upstage the No. 1.

Elise Stefanik. The chair of the House Republican conference is in no danger of ever outshining Mr. Trump. Her past as a more moderate, business-friendly Republican might offer comfort to some non-MAGA voters. Her leadership post has given her a national profile, and over the years she has worked aggressively to improve the party’s standing with female voters and to advance female candidates. She has solid relationships with the party elite, including big donors.

While those establishment ties and history might raise some eyebrows in certain corners of Trump world, the congresswoman has undergone a total MAGA makeover in recent years. And there is little Mr. Trump loves more than having a former apostate grovel before him. As a bonus: Her assault on the heads of three elite universities during a December hearing on campus antisemitism, which played a role in the subsequent resignation of two of them, has given her a bit of conservative sparkle, at least for now. Mr. Trump appreciates someone who knows how to work the TV cameras.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Mr. Trump surely considers the White House press secretary turned governor of Arkansas to be his political creation, which is one of his favorite kinds of people, as long as they don’t step out of line. (Just ask Meatball Ron DeSantis.) Ms. Sanders knows how to swim with the national media sharks. She hails from a traditional Republican (mini) dynasty and enjoys ties to the party establishment. She has proved herself willing to say pretty much whatever nonsense Mr. Trump wants, and there is zero chance she would outshine him.

There is always a slight chance Ms. Sanders could have a problem with #PodiumGate, the kerfuffle over the $19,029.25 in taxpayer money she spent on … something — ostensibly a fancy lectern — that the Arkansas G.O.P. promptly reimbursed the state for after a journalist noted the purchase. But in Mr. Trump’s protective aura, she could probably just brush it off as witch hunting.

Marsha Blackburn. An early, fervid Trump supporter, the Tennessee senator was buzzed about as a possible V.P. in 2016, back when she was just a lowly House member. She has decades of experience in Congress and knows how to navigate the party establishment and Washington’s corridors of power. She is plenty feisty and media savvy yet unlikely to overshadow Mr. Trump.

That said, as a rock-ribbed conservative from a solidly red Southern state and (at least) a generation older than the other prime V.P. possibilities, she wouldn’t bring much in the way of balance to the table. Does Mr. Trump care anything about balance these days?

Kristi Noem. The South Dakota governor has political experience both inside and outside Washington, where she served four terms in the House. She has impressive media skills and undoubtedly meets Mr. Trump’s attractiveness standards. She was one of his early endorsers this cycle, which speaks to his loyalty obsession, a move that raised her standing in the veepstakes guessing game. During the pandemic, she aggressively toed the it’s-no-big-deal, we’re-keeping-this-state-open line favored by conservative governors. And she obviously knows how to stroke the MAGA king’s ego, as so deftly captured by her gift to him of a $1,100 replica of Mount Rushmore with his face added. (I swear. That man is so basic.)

Her tenure as governor has had its bumps, including a nepotism controversy. She also seems to really want the job, which isn’t always helpful to an aspiring veep. Last week she suggested Mr. Trump’s pick should be willing to tell him the truth — and that she filled the bill. Terrific! Except Mr. Trump might see this more as a bug than a feature. More generally, does he find it admirable or distasteful that she has long been seen as lobbying for the job and has even begun publicly issuing advice on the matter? She, like Mr. Bannon, recently smacked down the idea of Mr. Trump going with Ms. Haley.

Nancy Mace. This may feel like a counterintuitive pick. The South Carolina congresswoman’s politics aren’t reliably MAGA, she has waffled on the loyalty thing, and she digs the limelight a little too much. Mr. Bannon nonetheless praised her “Trumpian attitude,” her “brashness,” her “set of titanium balls.”

Marjorie Taylor Greene. The bomb-throwing congresswoman from Georgia is in many ways the female embodiment of Trumpism. She knows how to grab the media spotlight, and her belligerent, anti-elite, anti-expertise, anti-everything ’tude thrills the party base. Her attack-dog credentials are unimpeachable. She even voted against certifying the 2020 presidential election results. So MAGA.

She may, in fact, be a smidge too in your face. She doesn’t play well with the traditional wing of the party and, more recently, even managed to alienate fellow extremists in the House. Getting herself booted from the Freedom Caucus took some doing! And talk about a woman unlikely to win over voters beyond Mr. Trump’s existing fan base. Geesh.

Which brings us to Nikki Haley.

Let us first tackle the potential disqualifiers. The former governor of South Carolina may have served as Mr. Trump’s U.N. ambassador, but she does not rate well on his loyalty meter. Running against him? Criticizing his presidency? Suggesting competency tests for older pols? People have been put on his enemy’s list for less. Worse still, she could very well outshine him, at least in terms of basic intellect and verbal coherence.

Still, refer to Mr. Trump’s love of humiliating and subjugating his critics: Having her serve as his No. 2 could tickle the Trump id. She has leadership experience and fits in with the establishment — though without being saddled with a congressional record, with all those pesky votes that can be weaponized by opponents. As an Indian American born to immigrant parents, she could help dilute the G.O.P’s image as the party of angry white racists. She’s attractive and media savvy and has foreign policy experience.

Beyond that, a Trump-Haley ticket would signal that the former president is at least vaguely interested in soothing skittish, non-MAGA women. Ms. Haley is not looking to blow up the system. She is selling a more pragmatic, coalition-minded political approach and a more old-school Republicanism than what today’s base wants. Her selection would be a clear sign that Mr. Trump isn’t worried about making his MAGA base any happier. And why should he be? He is their adored, infallible leader.

Still, it’s hard to see how Mr. Trump gets past that whole disloyalty thing with her. Especially after Mike Pence turned out to be such a disappointment to him in the end. And perhaps nothing would be a greater sign of Mr. Trump’s confidence in himself and his chances in November than if he went with his heart (like a Noem) rather than with a more calculated, conventional choice (like a Haley). The MAGA king isn’t one to let too much strategic thinking spoil his fun.

Source photographs by Kevin Dietsch, Anna Moneymaker, Scott Olson and Christian Monterrosa/Agence France-Presse, via Getty Images, Will Newton and Alex Brandon/Associated Press.

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