Ramaswamy Grabs the Mic

Vivek Ramaswamy speaks at the 2022 AmericaFest at the Phoenix Convention Center in December 2002 in Phoenix. (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons)

Happy Monday! We’d like to extend a warm “welcome back” to self-help author and “spiritual thought leader” Marianne Williamson, who said Sunday that she will challenge Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination in 2024. Last time around, Williamson didn’t make it to Iowa, but you never know—and it’s hard to imagine a more interesting general-election presidential debate than, say, Williamson vs. Ramaswamy. 

Up to Speed

  • Given his presidential star has risen during his term as Florida governor, Ron DeSantis hadn’t faced many questions about his foreign policy agenda until recently. Now, however, he appears to be allying himself with the GOP’s emergent isolationist wing. In a Fox News interview last week, DeSantis criticized President Joe Biden’s “blank check” approach to the war in Ukraine: “He’s very concerned about those borders halfway around the world. He’s not done anything at home to secure our own border here at home.”  Those comments contrast sharply with ones DeSantis made while still in Congress—most notably when he criticized former President Barack Obama for not being hawkish enough against Russia’s encroachment on Ukraine. “As a conservative congressman, DeSantis, now a potential presidential hopeful, urged sending ‘defensive and offensive’ weapons to Ukraine in 2014 and 2015 and even voted to refuse to fund a new missile defense treaty with Russia until they withdrew from Ukraine,” report CNN’s Em Steck and Andrew Kaczynski.
  • Democratic Michigan Rep. Elissa Slotkin is officially running for retiring Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s Senate seat. In a video released Monday morning, the former CIA analyst focused on her personal backstory and perceptions of national malaise: “We all know America is going through something right now. We seem to be living crisis to crisis,” she said. But “our country’s going to get through this. It’s hard work, but that’s what Michiganders do.” Slotkin enters what’s shaping up to be a slim Democratic field: Two other possible contenders, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and state Sen. Mallory McMorrow, announced over the weekend they won’t get into the Senate race.
  • Slotkin’s announcement brings her 2022 Republican challenger, Michigan state Sen. Tom Barrett, one step closer to running for her House seat again in 2024. “Senator Barrett has received very strong encouragement from throughout Michigan to run for the 7th District and is putting together plans to do so,” Barrett said in a statement Monday morning.
  • The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) returns to the D.C. area this week, kicking off at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Maryland March 1-4 and featuring a host of speakers including former President Donald Trump, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and former Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake. Neither Ron DeSantis nor former Vice President Mike Pence are currently slated to attend. The conference has been somewhat overshadowed this year by an allegation of sexual assault against lobbyist Matt Schlapp, who runs CPAC’s parent organization, the American Conservative Union. Schlapp has denied the allegation in court. 

Can Ramaswamy Corner the ‘Anti-Woke’ Market?

If you’ve decided to run for president, there’s an art to deciding when to announce your candidacy. If you’re a former president yourself, you might want to be first out of the gate, to cast each subsequent entry as an explicit referendum on you. If you’re a former member of that president’s administration, you might wait for the field to expand and minimize the amount of time you have to spend going mano-a-mano with your former boss. If you’re a certain popular governor, you might want to finish up your legislative session first, both to pad your policy résumé and perhaps to make sure running won’t force you to resign from your current job. 

And if you’re a political newcomer whom even many new junkies haven’t heard of, you probably want to grab that microphone early before things get too noisy and crowded.

This seems to be the strategy for Vivek Ramaswamy, the biotech founder who became the third Republican to officially enter the race last Tuesday. With a pile of other contenders still waiting in the wings, the 37-year-old megamillionaire is already off to the races, barnstorming across New Hampshire and Iowa last week.

The son of Indian immigrants, Ramaswamy spent most of the last decade running Roivant Sciences, the biotech company he founded in 2014. But in the last few years, Ramaswamy’s focus turned political: He resigned from Roivant in January 2021 and threw himself into the growing national conversation at the intersection of hot-button cultural issues and corporate America, becoming a fixture of the Wall Street Journal op-ed page and a frequent guest on Fox News. His initial target was ESG, or “environmental, social, and governance”—the corporate philosophy of making investments or other business decisions with an eye toward their impact on social factors like climate change and social justice. He has since broadened that critique, diagnosing a “national identity crisis” brought on by “secular religions” like “COVID-ism, climate-ism, and gender ideology,” calling for a return to “national renewal” focused on the founding principles that bind Americans together.

One week in, he says he’s pleased with the response he’s seen on the trail.

“People came out who loved the specificity of the policy proposals,” Ramaswamy told The Dispatch in an interview Friday, “that, ironically, are topics that the other Republicans aren’t talking about.”

It’s no surprise that other Republicans have steered clear of some of these proposals. Ramaswamy has argued, for instance, that the U.S. should funnel arms to the Mexican government to stamp out drug cartels—and threaten to invade Mexico to do the job themselves if Mexico can’t or won’t. “The fact that this alienates the defense establishment as much as it does tells me that it’s probably actually a pretty good idea,” Ramaswamy said in a selfie video from New Hampshire.

For the most part, though, Ramaswamy’s suggestion that he’s the only Republican hitting the broad theme of national renewal through purging woke-ism is a bit perplexing. After all, railing against wokeness and leftist culture capture may be the single most unifying aspect of today’s Republican Party. Ron DeSantis has built a brand around sharp-elbowed anti-woke cultural positioning. Mike Pence’s campaign-in-waiting is currently running anti-ESG ads in Arizona and Montana. Nikki Haley and Mike Pompeo frequently denounce “woke-ism.” And no politician has done more to center the culture war over the last decade than Donald Trump.

Far from ignoring these issues, today’s GOP is so militantly anti-woke that wonks in less sexy policy areas have begun to co-opt anti-woke language in an attempt to juice enthusiasm for their own pet issues. Russell Vought, Trump’s former director of the Office of Management and Budget and founder of the think tank Center for Renewing America, has recently been shopping a spending-slashing budget plan on Capitol Hill he bills as “focusing the fight on spending around the woke and weaponized bureaucracy.”

“It is vital that taxpayer dollars not be used to fund [critical race theory] and drag queen story hours,” Vought told The Dispatch.

Ramaswamy contends that voters will be able to tell which candidates are anti-woke at their core and which have only adopted the posture.

“I was the originator of these ideas, for better or worse. And I think that my vision for national identity, the revival of national identity in the face of these threats to national identity, are also my own,” he told The Dispatch. “I’m really grateful for governors like DeSantis and [Virginia Gov. Glenn] Youngkin—DeSantis in particular—who have taken a lot of the ideas that I’ve put into the sphere and have run into implementing them in their respective states. I think there’s no greater form of compliment than that. But when you’re talking about a national revival, it better be somebody who understands it in a bone-deep way.”

(DeSantis and Younkin could not be reached for comment over the weekend.)

Ramaswamy’s bid is a long shot, but not an empty vanity project. He’s brought aboard a team of seasoned GOP campaign veterans, including Rex Elsass and Benjamin Yoho of the Ohio-based Strategy Group Company and Gail Gitcho, most recently of Herschel Walker’s Senate campaign. And some prominent Republicans in early states have been quick to applaud his message.

“I would not underestimate him,” said Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of the Family Leader, an influential social conservative group in Iowa. “I think he has a great message for America, and I think he’s probably the right person to deliver it. And we’ll just see how this new realm of politics goes for him, but I think at minimum he’s gonna be very, very good for the debate.”

Club for Growth Official Mulls a Senate Run in Virginia

In early February, the anti-tax Club for Growth gave reporters a preview of its super PAC’s 2024 Senate playbook—spend millions boosting economic conservative candidates in Democrat-held battlegrounds, particularly in redder swing states like West Virginia and Montana.

But the organization’s deep pockets could also come in handy next cycle in bluer Virginia, where the group’s vice president of government affairs, Scott Parkinson, is considering challenging Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine. Parkinson confirmed in an interview that he recently met with senior officials at the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) about a potential 2024 bid. 

“I’m strongly considering running for the United States Senate,” Parkinson told The Dispatch.

A run against Kaine—Hillary Clinton’s 2016 running mate who previously served as Virginia’s lieutenant governor and governor—would be an uphill climb for Parkinson, a Wisconsin native and first-time candidate who lives in the northern Virginia suburb of Arlington with his wife and four kids. Kaine beat Republican challenger Corey Stewart in 2018 by 16 points.

But Parkinson has an impressive résumé. His 17 years in politics include serving as executive director of the House Republican Study Committee, time at the NRSC, and brief stints in the offices of GOP Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Marco Rubio of Florida, and John Ensign of Nevada. Most notably, he also served as chief of staff to former GOP Rep. Ron DeSantis before working on his gubernatorial transition team in Florida.

That Rolodex could pay dividends on the campaign trail in terms of both fundraising and endorsements. Not to mention his connections to the Club’s super PAC arm, Club for Growth Action, which spent more than $38 million last cycle in Senate Republican primaries last cycle and is aware of Parkinson’s interest in running. 

“Scott Parkinson would make a great senator,” Club for Growth President David McIntosh said in a statement.

This early in campaign season it’s still unclear who will jump into the Republican field. One prospective candidate is Navy veteran and Vietnamese refugee Hung Cao, who lost to Democratic Rep. Jennifer Wexton in Virginia’s 10th District by 6.6 points in November. The Dispatch first reported Cao’s interest in running this month.

Eyes on the Trail

  • GOP presidential debate schedule takes shape: The Republican National Committee’s debate committee voted to hold the party’s first presidential primary debate in Milwaukee in August, the New York Times reported last week. “The committee is seeking to have all candidates sign a loyalty pledge vowing to support the eventual nominee in order to be part of the debates,” the Times’ Maggie Haberman and Maggie Astor report. “Milwaukee will also be the site of the Republican National Convention in 2024. Another location that had been under consideration for the first debate was the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, according to people briefed on the matter.”
  • John James bows out of Senate race: Rep. John James, the Michigan Republican who lost Senate bids in 2018 and 2020 before winning the competitive 10th District House seat last November, has decided against trying again for Senate—at least for now. “The reason I’m running for reelection is because I’m committed to this district,” James told reporters in Michigan last week. “I’m committed to the region and I’m excited to get to work and make sure we can focus on the policy, focus on the people and not the partisan politics.” The news comes as a relief to House Republican strategists, but it remains to be seen whether this is the last word for James’ plans.

Notable and Quotable

“Do you still identify as a Democrat?” 

“I identify as an American.” 

—West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin to Fox News host Maria Bartiromo, Sunday, February 26, 2023

Let Us Know

What do you make of Vivek Ramaswamy’s presidential campaign pitch?

Clarification 2/27/23: This newsletter originally misspelled Scott Parkinson’s last name and described him as a “political novice.” He has spent 17 years working in politics and is a first-time prospective candidate.

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