LAS VEGAS (AP) — The burgeoning class of the Republican Party in 2024, emboldened as ever, branded Donald Trump “a loser” again and again Friday as they courted donors and activists worried about the future of the GOP led by the former president.
Trump’s vocal critics included current and former Republican governors, members of his own cabinet and major donors who gathered along the Las Vegas Strip for what organizers described as the unofficial start of the next presidential primary season. It was a remarkable display of defiance for a party defined almost entirely by its loyalty to Trump over the past six years.
“Maybe there’s a little blood in the water and the sharks are circling,” Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, himself a Republican presidential nominee and frequent Trump critic, said in an interview. “I don’t think we’ve ever gotten to this point before.”
The gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual leadership meeting, which began Friday, comes just days after Trump became the first candidate to formally launch a 2024 campaign. His allies hoped his early announcement could stave off serious primary challenges, but several potential candidates said that’s unlikely after Trump loyalists lost midterm matches last week in battlefield states from Arizona to Pennsylvania. His political standing within the GOP, already weakening, plummeted further.
Ahead of his Friday night speech, Mike Pompeo, Trump’s former secretary of state, mocked one of his former boss’s slogans: “We were told we were going to get tired of winning. But I’m tired of losing.”
“Personality, celebrities just don’t get it done,” he later said from the ballroom stage.
Trump will address the weekend rally Saturday via video conference. The vast majority of high-profile Republican officials considering a 2024 White House bid appeared in person at the two-day conference, which included a series of private donor meetings and public speeches.
The program included DeSantis, a top Trump rival, and Pence, whom Trump blames for failing to roll back the 2020 election. Other speakers included Hogan, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and Florida Sen. Rick Scott.
Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, another potential 2024 contender, canceled his appearance following a shooting at the University of Virginia on Sunday that left three dead.
House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, who could become the speaker of the House when the Republicans take over in January, is also on the agenda.
There seemed to be little sympathy for Trump’s latest legal challenges.
Hours before Friday’s opening dinner, Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed special counsel to oversee the Justice Department’s investigation into the presence of classified documents at Trump’s Florida estate, as well as key aspects of a separate investigation related to the January 6, 2021 riot and efforts to secure the 2020 election to undo.
Sununu, the New Hampshire governor who won re-election with ease last week, said there was no sign his party would rally to Trump’s defense this time around.
“Those are his problems to sort out,” Sununu said. “Everyone is going to sit back and watch the show. And that’s not just his supporters — that’s his money, that’s his donors, that’s his fundraisers,” said the Republican governor, who won reelection easily last week. “We’ll just move on.”
With loyal support among ordinary voters and a sprawling fundraising operation with small dollar contributions, Trump doesn’t need major donors or party leaders to reach the GOP nomination for a third time. But unwillingness from big-buck Republicans to commit to him — at least for now — could make his way back to the White House more difficult.
There was little sign of enthusiasm for Trump’s 2024 presidential ambitions in the hallways and conference rooms of the weekend rally. At dinner on Friday night, organizers offered attendees yarmulkes bearing Trump’s name, but there were few takers.
That’s even as Jewish Republicans continued to praise Trump’s commitment to Israel in the White House.
“There is no question that what President Trump has accomplished during his four years in terms of strengthening the relationship between the US and Israel has been unparalleled. He was the most pro-Israel president ever,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
But that may not be enough to win over the coalition’s main donors this time.
“For a lot of people attending this conference, this is about the future,” Brooks said. And for some of them, President Trump might be their answer. For others, they are interested in what others have to say.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie leaned on Trump’s political failures Thursday at a private dinner with the group’s top donors. In a subsequent interview, he did not give up.
“In my eyes, he’s a loser now. He’s an electoral loser,” said Christie, another 2024 prospect. “If you look at a general electorate, I don’t think there’s a Democrat he can beat, because he is now toxic to suburban voters on a personal level, and he’s earned it.”
The annual event takes place at the Venetian Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, a nod to longtime benefactor of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Sheldon Adelson., a billionaire casino mogul who passed away last year. His wife Miriam Adelson remains a fundraising force within the GOP, though her donation level in the recent midterm elections, which exceeded $20 million, was scaled back somewhat.
76-year-old Israeli-born Miriam Adelson “remains neutral” in the 2024 GOP presidential primaries, according to Andy Abboud, the family’s longtime political gatekeeper.
She’s not alone.
Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress and heir to Estee Lauder’s cosmetics fortune, has supported Trump’s past campaigns but has no plans to support him in 2024, according to a Lauder spokesman.
Stephen A. Schwarzman, a former Trump backer, chairman and CEO of the investment firm Blackstone Group, told Axios this week that he would support someone from a “new generation” of Republicans. Kenneth C. Griffin, the hedge fund billionaire, already openly supports DeSantis.
On Friday, aerospace CEO Phillip Friedman described himself as a “big Trump supporter” but said he is open to listening to others move forward.
“There are some other people who have his policies but don’t have the baggage,” Friedman said of Trump.
In his keynote address, Pence largely focused on the achievements of the Trump administration, but included a few indirect jokes against the former president.
“To win the future,” Pence said, “we Republicans and elected leaders must do more than criticize and complain.”
In an interview this week, he was more direct.
“I think we’ll have better choices in 2024,” Pence told The Associated Press. “And I have every confidence that Republican primary voters will choose wisely.”
New York AP writer Michelle Price contributed.