The GOP’s most Trump-skeptical bloc starts falling in line

The GOP’s most Trump-skeptical bloc starts falling in line

Donald Trump is making serious headway with a bloc of the GOP that’s among the most skeptical of his 2024 bid: Republican senators.

In some cases, Trump is breaking through thanks to the sort of personal attention that he’s known to lavish on allies and supporters. Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), for example, endorsed home-state Gov. Doug Burgum for president in June — but even before Burgum dropped out of the primary, Trump was already in Hoeven’s ear.

Trump “called me before” to discuss an endorsement, Hoeven recalled in an interview. The Midwesterner said he told the former president Burgum is “‘a close personal friend, he’s from my state, so I endorsed him.’” Then, according to Hoeven, Trump “asked if I’d endorse him, if Doug didn’t continue.”

The Hoeven call shows how Trump’s campaign for Capitol endorsements is accelerating as he nears the first GOP nominating contest in Iowa. He won five endorsements from Republican senators during December alone, after snagging just three of them over the preceding four months. So far, Trump’s secured 18 endorsements from the Senate GOP, a group that ranges from establishment-minded Republicans to confrontational conservatives who will be vocal allies if he wins another term.

That success winning over the Hill GOP was hardly guaranteed — and comes just three years after Trump mounted a public campaign to overturn his 2020 loss that’s gotten him indicted on dozens of criminal charges. But a combination of behind-the-scenes courtships like that of Hoeven and the growing feeling of inevitability that Trump will win the nomination is peeling off Republican senators who might otherwise have longed for a new, less divisive standard-bearer. These days, many in the GOP see only upside to early support for Trump.

His recent converts include freshman Sen. Katie Britt (R-Ala.), who initially saidher RNC job precluded an endorsement before endorsing Trump in December, as well as Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who led a challenge to Trump’s 2020 defeat by President Joe Biden.

Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the second senator to endorse Trump in his 2024 bid, said the growing tide of pro-Trump senators signals that the former president’s path to the nomination is now “more clear” than ever in the days before Republicans cast their first ballots.

Still, Trump’s ride to a third straight Republican nod isn’t without tension. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has next to no relationship with him, and other Republican senators remain worried about whether he can win a general election.

Many of Trump’s recent endorsers, like Sens. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, Rick Scott of Florida and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, are up for reelection in 2024 in red states where a primary is their biggest electoral threat. (Cramer also initially supported Burgum.) Not everyone in that camp, however, is on board the Trump train.

Sen. Pete Ricketts (R-Neb.), who faces a special election this fall after being appointed to his seat, noted that Trump’s 18 endorsements are “less than half” of the Senate GOP.

“So it probably reflects his support in the general public,” Ricketts said. “I am not planning on doing any endorsements at this point.”

Though most endorsements do little to sway voters, they matter greatly to Trump, who wields them as political capital. Sometimes the process also comes full circle: Trump endorsed J.D. Vance in the Ohio Senate primary in 2022. And after Vance won, he became one of the first senators to endorse Trump’s 2024 campaign.

Now, Trump is backing Vance’s preferred candidate in this year’s Ohio Senate primary, Bernie Moreno. National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Steve Daines (R-Mont.) endorsed Trump way back in April, in part to coordinate their work together on key Senate races. So far they aren’t yet at odds, but the NRSC remains neutral in Ohio.

Trump took a different approach to Hawley and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), warning them recently to “be very careful” in their 2024 reelection campaigns. Hawley endorsed Trump shortly after that comment, though he’d already privately assured Trump of his support.

Cruz said he’ll stay neutral in the presidential race until there’s a GOP nominee. Still, he is certainly not returning to his past reluctance about Trump.

“When he was president, he had no stronger ally in the Senate than me. And if he is the nominee, I will enthusiastically support his election in November,” said Cruz, who ran against Trump in 2016 and eventually endorsed him after first snubbing him at that year’s GOP convention.

After many elected Republicans predicted a wide-open primary a year ago, their 2024 presidential contest is turning out quite differently. At the time, some were watching closely to see if Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis could translate his whopping reelection win into a spirited challenge to Trump.

Plenty of Republican senators had hoped their colleague Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina could catch fire and deliver a sunnier message than Trump. Scott even won the endorsement of Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), at the time the highest-ranking Hill endorsement for any GOP candidate. Scott ultimately suspended his campaign after failing to gain momentum.

Trump is “in a good position and seems to be picking up support among members of Congress,” Thune said in an interview. “Tim Scott was my candidate. I’m sorry he’s not still in. The electorate this year probably doesn’t fit his hopeful, aspirational style of politics.”

Thune is currently neutral, though he’s impressed with former Gov. Nikki Haley (R-S.C.). Still, neither she nor DeSantis have any support from the Senate and each have scant support in the House, where Trump maintains a vice grip on Republicans.

Despite his progress across the Capitol, Trump still faces plenty of doubters within the Senate GOP. He’s almost certainly not going to win over fierce critics like Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah or Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, to name just two.

McConnell is a different story: He doesn’t communicate with Trump, and he rarely responds to Trump’s attacks on him and his family. Nonetheless, the Kentuckian has said repeatedly he will endorse whomever his party nominates. That puts Trump’s support within the party on a dual track: He is poised to rack up many congressional endorsements over the next few weeks, provided he translates his polling leads to primary wins.

And if he does, he may be able to win over many of his other skeptics — once he wins the Republican nomination in the summer.

“I expect he’s going to be the nominee and receive the enthusiastic support of a great, great majority of senators,” said Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the conference’s No. 3 leader.

Should McConnell decide not to pursue another term as GOP leader in 2025, Thune, Barrasso and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas are among his potential successors. All three will have to think about how they might work with Trump, who seems to be gaining steam as primary season approaches.

“That strength among Republican primary voters has always been there,” said Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana, a Trump supporter who is running for governor. “A lot of this is [senators] seeing what folks are telling them back home.”

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