CPAC becomes the Trump veepstakes

CPAC becomes the Trump veepstakes

With the Republican presidential primary all but decided for former president Donald Trump, Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference served as an audition to become Mr Trump’s running mate.

Being Trump’s running mate is an inherently dicey prospect. For one, the last person who served in the job, the unflappable and pious Mike Pence, famously broke with Trump for the efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, which resulted in Trump supporters threatening Pence’s life.

By the same token, Trump will be 78 come 20 January 2024 and will be capped at serving only four more years. If Trump wins this person will essentially be his heir, with all the benefits and drawbacks. If Trump loses, they will be the person to pick up the pieces for the party in a wholly dysfunctional GOP. If Trump is convicted of a crime on the campaign trail or dies while in office, this person will become the standard bearer for the Republican Party.

It’s a simultaneously prestigious and thankless task for a job that former vice president John Nance Garner once called “not worth a bucket of warm piss.” Look no further than how Kamala Harris polls lower than President Joe Biden to get an idea of how brutal the job can be.

Nonetheless, the Friday cattle call featured Ohio Senator JD Vance, New York Congresswoman Elise Stefanik and South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem vying for the voted spot. Here’s how they did.

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem

The South Dakotan has the benefit of having been a steadfast Trump supporter throughout her tenure both as a congresswoman, as a candidate for governor and in her current job. That gives her an advantage against Vance, a former critic-turned-Trump fanboy, and Stefanik, a former moderate who turned MAGA to elevate her national profile. Republican women have often chosen not to lean into their gender, but interestingly, Noem noted how she faced an uphill battle in her first campaign for governor, some worried about the challenges she faced as a female candidate.

She also painted herself as a rough-and-tumble rural rancher who is comfortable putting on some jeans and doing some hard labour in the heartland. More notably she said “We need to look for our leaders outside of the swamp,” a potential nod to the idea that Trump should not pick a member of Congress or a Senator. Of course, she served in Congress in the past, so there is some hypocrisy. But the lack of name recognition and her more low-key delivery might not make her bombastic enough for the Trump faithful.

New York Congresswoman Elise Stefanik

Stefanik delivered by far the most robust speech. Whereas Noem talked about how her state created jobs, had a decline in overdoses and ran a happy state, Stefanik delivered the red meat. She talked about how “On January 6, I stood up for the constitution, and election integrity” when she voted to object to the 2020 election results, clearly showing that she would not do what Pence did. She also got applause when she said she usurped “Pelosi Puppet” Liz Cheney as the chairwoman of the House Republican Conference.

Of course, she also bragged about how her questioning of university presidents during a hearing on antisemitism contributed to the resignation of the presidents at the University of Pennsylvania and her alma mater Harvard, while also bragging about the fact that she graduated there and remained a conservative.

Stefanik also noted how she flipped a district that had voted for Barack Obama, an overture to show that she can win swing voters that Trump needs. Ironically, though, her going all in on Trumpism might be the thing that repels her with suburban voters whom Trump needs to win over.

Ohio Senator JD Vance

Instead of delivering a speech, Vance, who burst onto the national scene thanks to his book Hillbilly Elegy, which chronicled the plight of the white working class, opted to deliver a wonky sitdown with Newsmax host Rob Schmitt. Vance, a Yale-educated lawyer and former venture capitalist, mostly spent the chat railing about Ukraine while also attacking Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for caring more about Ukraine than poor rural Americans in Kentucky. He also railed against the bipartisan agreement that would have swapped aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan in exchange for immigration restrictions and efforts to secure the US-Mexico border.

At the same time, Vance’s medium of a sitdown and a staid conversation about foreign policy didn’t necessarily liven up the crowd as much as the others. Given Vance has the least political experience of all of the potential candidates, he still has a ways to go.