A very early look at the Republican veepstakes

(NEW YORK) — While about a dozen major Republican candidates are fighting for the 2024 nomination, a more under-the-radar quadrennial competition is starting: the race to be the still-unnamed nominee’s running mate.

The 2024 veepstakes — still in its infancy — is mostly fuel for speculation, but squinting can reveal early jockeying for a potential spot on the ticket depending on who heads it.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds are viewed as well-positioned to be vice presidential picks by sources who know them and outside GOP strategists, and current presidential candidates like former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott are constantly beating back conjecture that they’re actually seeking to set up camp at the Naval Observatory instead of at the White House.

“Everybody says they don’t want it, but then ultimately everybody does want it, right? And I don’t think that that excludes [Noem] or any of the other potential leading candidates,” said a person familiar with Noem’s thinking.

Noem was speculated to be considering a White House run of her own, though that appears less likely now.

However, she’s ramping up advertising and is expected to travel more outside South Dakota. South Dakota this month launched a nationwide ad campaign aimed at workforce recruitment. The effort’s two ads prominently feature Noem and are set to run through the summer. The source familiar with Noem’s thinking also teased more travel by the governor and said her attendance at next month’s Family Leadership Summit in the critical early voting state of Iowa is a “lock.”

In an interview with a local news outlet Tuesday, Noem stopped short of endorsing former President Donald Trump’s comeback bid but did say “I don’t see a path to victory for anybody else with him in the race and the situation as it sits today” — boosting the candidate who is widely considered the primary favorite.

“These ads are really getting a lot of attention. She did ‘Fox & Friends’ on it. She did Kilmeade. She did ‘Hannity.’ All of this is designed to demonstrate to people across the country what she’s doing in the state,” said the source familiar with Noem’s thinking, referencing the ad campaign. “Number one, it brings people to South Dakota. Number two, it’s a really, really, really smart marketing opportunity if you don’t want to file for president to keep your name top of mind.”

“Just think of that, and then we’ll see what her travel schedule looks like over the coming weeks and months,” the person teased.

Should Noem ultimately be tapped, allies say she can boast a strong fundraising base, tap into ties to congressional leaders after eight years in the House before becoming governor and highlight her claims that South Dakota did not experience lengthy shutdowns during the coronavirus pandemic. And with mostly men leading the primary field, Noem would also offer an opportunity to bring gender diversity to the ticket.

“She’s definitely had a national profile and worked to maintain that. And that’s had some benefits to South Dakota, but it’s also meant that she has horizons beyond just being governor of South Dakota,” said one South Dakota GOP official. “I think there’s a broad assumption that that’s something she’d be interested in.”

Just to the east, Reynolds is also making waves. As the governor of Iowa, Reynolds has appeared at events with several presidential contenders eager to gin up support for the state’s caucuses — a ubiquity that sparked a Wall Street Journal profile.

Reynolds also highlighted her foreign policy chops by meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday and gained plaudits in 2022 for her response to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address — a role typically reserved for a party up-and-comer.

“I think she would definitely consider it, and I think she would see it as an honor for all of Iowa and for Iowans to be considered. And if she thought she could elevate Iowa values, Iowa common sense to the country, I think she then would welcome that invitation,” said Bob Vander Plaats, an influential evangelical activist in Iowa who speaks with Reynolds.

Like Noem, Reynolds would offer a presidential nominee a rising star and deeply conservative record, including a laser focus on how race and sexuality are taught in public schools — another issue popular with the GOP base.

“I think she does her job so well that it would compel someone to consider [her]. She’s been an incredibly effective governor. She’s passing her agenda, which is popular in the state of Iowa,” said David Kochel, a GOP strategist who worked on both of Reynolds’ gubernatorial campaigns. “If I were the Republican nominee, it’d be a pretty short list of people I would look at, and she is right at the top of it.”

Beyond Noem and Reynolds, operatives who spoke with ABC News also mentioned people like Arkansas Gov. Sarah Sanders and Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn as potential picks.

However, a source familiar with Sanders’ thinking told ABC News she intends to serve as governor for eight years, though “she’s certainly aware that her name has been mentioned,” and a spokesperson for Blackburn insisted she’s running for reelection in 2024.

Sources who spoke to ABC News also repeatedly mentioned Haley and Scott, both of whom are polling in the low single digits and have thus far struggled to expand their bases — sparking whispers that they may be using presidential bids to increase their name recognition and then become vice president or score a spot in a GOP administration. Scott himself years ago even expressed openness to being a vice president.

Both of their campaigns have continually denounced the speculation, calling it offensive and insisting their candidates are in the race for the long haul.

Yet if there is a hidden scheme in their campaigns, strategists cast doubts on whether a presidential campaign could turn into a spot as the party’s No. 2.

“If you think you can become vice president by running for president, that’s not always the best strategy because if you run a poor campaign for president, then why should you be vice president? And if you run a great campaign for president, then in all likelihood you’ve attacked the eventual nominee on the way,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist who worked on Sen. Marco Rubio’s, R-Fla., 2016 presidential bid.

Bob Heckman, a GOP strategist and veteran of several presidential campaigns, suggested “the best way to set yourself up is [to] pick the winning horse and be supportive.”

“I don’t think that in the Republican Party, there has been a tendency to try to find someone who ran against you or supported those people who ran against you and make that person a vice presidential nominee,” he said.

If that’s true, that could potentially indicate Noem’s positive comments about Trump are part of a larger play — and put any possible vice presidential ambitions of Scott and Haley, who has been sharply critical of Trump, in peril. Reynolds, meanwhile, has said she’ll remain neutral at least through the Iowa caucuses.

The last Republican presidential nominee to select a primary opponent as his running mate was Ronald Reagan, who brought on George H.W. Bush as his running mate in the 1980 general election after he defeated him in the Republican primaries earlier that year.

Still, all would-be vice presidential candidates could have a tightrope to walk, lest they appear too eager for the role.

“Being seen as campaigning for it,” Conant warned, “is probably the quickest way to get yourself off the list.”

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