Trump’s loosening grip on GOP defines early 2024 campaign


Rep. Thomas Massie was so eager for Donald Trump’s endorsement in a contested primary three years ago that he ran TV ads targeted at the then-president in Florida to win his support.

Today, Massie is all but shunning Trump and his comeback campaign. In fact, the Kentucky Republican attended a retreat last weekend for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“Ron DeSantis is the best governor there ever was,” he said when asked if he planned to endorse in the 2024 presidential primary.

The Kentucky Republican is far from the only one-time Trump ally who’s staying away from the former president, despite his lead in every major poll so far. Some are looking more seriously at his would-be rivals like DeSantis or Gov. Nikki Haley. Others are intentionally staying on the sidelines but privately hoping he stumbles. That sentiment is deepening throughout the Republican Party — but no segment of the party illustrates the shift as vividly as the House GOP, whose members almost universally backed Trump in both previous races.

As of March 1, fewer than 20 House Republicans have formally endorsed Trump in the four months since he declared his third campaign, according to a POLITICO analysis. Roughly another dozen have publicly supported Trump in some way, though short of a formal endorsement.

For now, Trump’s campaign doesn’t appear concerned about their tally of congressional support. Members of Trump’s team are in regular contact with lawmakers and they expect to roll out more endorsements soon, according to an adviser to Trump.

The widespread hesitancy would not be notable in another era — or if a former president was not already in the race. But in this instance, the lack of public support is perhaps the clearest sign yet that members feel Trump’s support is no longer a prerequisite for political survival. Trump’s vengeance is now barely registering as a threat, after years as one of the most dominant forces in politics.

“I’m the last person that would worry about that,” Massie said of possible retribution for not supporting Trump. “It backfires. You can’t attack too many of your own party.”

Of course, the presidential primaries don’t begin for a year, and the field has yet to fully take shape. So far, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is the only other prominent declared GOP presidential candidate. DeSantis is not expected to launch a bid until the spring at the earliest, while Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) has said he is still mulling over the decision. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, former Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are other possible candidates.

In interviews with nearly 20 House Republicans, many cited the uncertainty in the field as reason to keep quiet for now.

“We don’t know what it’s going to look like at the end of the day,” said Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), whose suburban St. Louis district took a hard lurch to the left in the Trump era. “People should be keeping their powder dry.”

Some went even further, suggesting it might be time for the party to move on — even as they refrained from invoking the former president’s name.

“Primaries really need to be involved in a conversation about the future of the party,” said centrist Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), when asked if he planned to endorse in the race. He warned against a “coronation.”

“I’m for generational change in both parties,” said Rep. French Hill (R-Ark.), a McCarthy ally and one-time Trump supporter who said he probably would not endorse in the race.

“With Governor DeSantis’ book coming out this week — I’m seeing him a lot these days,” said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), who also attended the Florida governor’s recent retreat. “I’ll look forward to hearing from him a little more.”

Each of them endorsed Trump in 2020.

Diminished threat of a vengeful Trump

Few Republicans are willing to openly speculate whether Trump’s current tepid level of support on Capitol Hill is an omen for the next two years. What is clear, though, is that crossing Trump is considered far less threatening.

Trump has been crusading since his 2016 election to remake the Republican Party in his image and oust any members who resist. In the past two years alone, he has sought retribution on GOP members who voted for impeachment (only two of the 10 were reelected last year) and those who supported a bipartisan infrastructure package.

And if Trump wasn’t driving the revenge train himself, his supporters waded in on his behalf. The House Republicans who voted to create a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attacks saw a surge in primary challengers, and many who won saw their primary margins dive dangerously even though they were facing under-funded opponents.

But the specter of those tough races don’t seem to have driven members toward Trump for political inoculation.

“I’m not planning on endorsing anybody,” said Rep. Michael Guest (R-Miss.), who was forced into a surprise primary runoff in 2022 after a challenger weaponized his vote for the Jan. 6 commission. “It’s too early at this point.”

And while Trump has the field mostly to himself so far, few of the GOP lawmakers interviewed said they’ve heard from him or his team directly. One notable exception: Rep. William Timmons (R-S.C.) said he received a call from home-state Sen. Lindsay Graham, a top Trump ally.

Timmons said the decision was easy for him, despite the other South Carolinans who are likely to get in the race. “Trump’s Trump. Cross him at your peril.”

But not all his colleagues assessed the situation similarly. Another South Carolina Republican, Rep. Ralph Norman, endorsed Haley when she launched her bid last month. Norman served with her in the South Carolina state House but was previously a devoted ally of Trump.

As a sign of respect, Norman said he called the former president before he endorsed but did not fear any political repercussions: “Donald Trump was magnanimous and he understood, and I will never have a negative word about Donald Trump.”

He’s far from the only House Republican who feels like they’re forced to choose sides between long-time friends and colleagues.

“I consider Tim Scott a friend,” said Rep. David Schweikert, who is not yet sure if he will endorse this cycle. The Arizona Republican served with both Scott and DeSantis in the House. “Ron is someone we also used to hang out with. I have great respect for him.

Multiple GOP members said Trump and his team had not conducted any extensive congressional outreach yet. Some members said they received emails from Trump’s political operation but not any specific endorsement requests.

“I haven’t gotten a call from him, or Nikki Haley, or Gov. DeSantis or Mike Pompeo or Tim Scott or any of the other folks,” said Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.). That seems to be true across the GOP conference. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.), who has also refrained from an endorsement so far, said he didn’t know anyone in his delegation who had gotten calls yet on the subject: “That decision will probably be made easier for me when the asks are made.”

Trump’s House loyalists

So far, Trump and his inner circle don’t seem to be sweating its lack of Hill endorsements. Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-N.J.), who endorsed Trump even before his third campaign became official, said he hasn’t been asked to dial up any of his on-the-fence colleagues but is ready to when asked: “I’ve never hidden it, and I’m not going to hide it now.”

And it’d be tough to find a House Republican more loyal to Trump than Van Drew: the New Jersey lawmaker switched parties in his first term as a Democrat after some personal wooing from Trump a week before his first impeachment vote.

“When I was going through a really difficult time, some real challenges, He was there,” Van Drew said. “Despite what people say about him, any time that guy’s looked me in the eye — rough around the edges as he may be — he’s always told me the truth.”

Rep. Wesley Hunt (R-Texas), is another GOP lawmaker who was quick to endorse Trump’s comeback bid, in part because of the former president’s support in own political career.

“He’s been very good to me. Loyalty matters to him, loyalty matters a lot to me,” Hunt said. After he lost his first race in 2020, Trump stuck by him and was critical to helping Hunt survive a 10-person primary two years later. “It made a huge difference in my race.”

Olivia Beavers, Meridith McGraw, Anthony Adragna and Daniella Diaz contributed to this report.


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