"More than two months after the Jan. 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill, Trump’s blessing remains the chief form of currency in Republican politics," wrote Gabby Orr and Meredith McGraw for Politico this morning. "Prospective Republican candidates and incumbent GOP lawmakers are engaged in a mad dash to nab his endorsement. Some have used tried-and-true methods to attract Trump’s approval, taking access-driven approaches or buttering him up with effusive public praise. Potential Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance, whose memoir Hillbilly Elegy became a zeitgeist of the Trump era, has been meeting with former Trump aides and consultants with close ties to the 45th president. Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Kelly, who is eyeing a challenge against his state’s Democratic governor, told Reuters this week he 'would be able to call on the president and ask for his help' after positioning himself as a vocal supporter of Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election outcome."
But one thing seems certain, Trump's decision on endorsements is all about Trump, not about the candidates, not about the election, not about the Republican Party. First and foremost it's about himself. Sound familiar? They began with an example, where Trump has no choice but to follow the politics, not try to re-shape them:
Lynda Blanchard’s fledgling campaign to succeed retiring Alabama GOP Sen. Richard Shelby seemed to be progressing smoothly as she mingled with donors inside Mar-a-Lago’s gilded ballroom last Saturday.
She had the bio, having served as ambassador to Slovenia-- the native home of former First Lady Melania Trump. She had the connections, having received a surprise visit from former President Donald Trump at one point in the evening. She even had the public shout out to tout on the trail.
“I can say you did a great job as ambassador,” Trump had told the crowd.
But within days, Blanchard’s effort to position herself as the Trump-approved candidate in the race was thrown into jeopardy as it became clear that the 45th president was leaning toward supporting Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) in the GOP primary for Shelby’s seat. Four people familiar with Trump’s thinking said Brooks was his preferred candidate and would most likely receive an endorsement in the foreseeable future-- if not on Monday, when Brooks is due to formally launch his campaign, then at a later point in the race.
“President Trump could jump out on Monday and do it, but he is also interested in waiting to make a big splash later on,” said one of the people familiar with Trump’s thinking.
Even Brooks himself seemed confident in Trump’s backing. During a phone call Wednesday afternoon-- which was overheard by these two reporters as the Alabama member of congress was entering a conservative hub on Capitol Hill-- Brooks told an unidentified person: “The president told me that when I do announce he would say good, strong, positive things about me.” Brooks’ team did not respond to a request for comment.
Indeed, few in Trump’s inner circle expected that the former president would ever endorse Blanchard over Brooks, who was among the first Republican lawmakers to announce a challenge against the 2020 election results last December and had the “inside track” for the 45th president’s nod, according to one Trump aide.
But what likely sealed Blanchard’s fate, according to four people familiar with the matter, was the moment they said her team broke a cardinal rule in Trump World: they exaggerated just how much of a Trump insider she truly is.
“The president doesn’t know Lynda all that well and it had gotten back to him and his team that people on her team had been overstating how close they supposedly are,” said a person close to Trump. “One of her aides was telling any donor who would listen that Trump was going to endorse her and that left him annoyed.”
“They were totally overstating the relationship between Lynda and him,” added a Trump adviser.
...But there are still barriers to a successful courtship. Blanchard’s case and others underscore the former president’s notorious sensitivity to feeling leveraged for someone else’s benefit, including politicians who oversell their proximity to him.
And if a candidate’s actions don’t match the pro-Trump brand they’re running on, securing the former president’s endorsement is likely to be that much harder.
Two of the sources familiar with Trump’s thinking said he was urged to slow down his Senate endorsements after throwing his weight behind Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, a frequent critic of Trump’s trade policies and one of a handful of Republican senators who voted against his attempt to use emergency presidential powers in the spring of 2019 to construct his new long-promised border wall. One of those sources said that when he was walked through the contradictions of the Moran endorsement, Trump’s revulsion to even minor instances of disloyalty only intensified. As an example, they noted that Trump is currently withholding an endorsement of Indiana Sen. Todd Young after Young called Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene “an embarrassment” to the Republican party last month. Young’s comments came shortly after Greene claimed she received Trump’s “full support” during a phone call with the former president.
Trump’s “money and his endorsement and engagements [are] very valuable. It’s political currency to a lot of these candidates and he plans to keep tighter reins on that,” said a former senior Trump administration official.
For those seeking Trump’s backing, there’s also the added challenge of getting a hold of him. Now living at his luxe private Mar-a-Lago resort [now partially shut down as a COVID-hot spot], Trump is only accessed by invitation to the club or by those in possession of his new Florida cell number. It’s a significant change from his Oval Office days, when members of Congress hoping to get a word with the president had multiple avenues for making the connection. Nowadays, Trump is surrounded by only a small team of aides-- many of whom have been traveling back-and-forth to Palm Beach from Washington and hold additional positions that demand their attention. A relationship with one of his political advisers certainly helps, as does a line to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who plays golf regularly with Trump and had encouraged him to back Moran and Young.
...“A lot of people I’ve spoken with in Washington talk about the toxicity of Trump but every single candidate I’ve spoken to for Congress, Senate, local legislatures, they are all jockeying for position by selling themselves as the ‘Donald Trump conservative,’” said former Trump campaign spokesperson Hogan Gidley.
Trump’s track record of endorsements may offer a window into why so many Republicans are seeking a thumbs-up from the former president. Despite losing reelection last fall, Trump has mostly managed to select winners in primary contests. In 2018, tracking by FiveThirtyEight found that “Trump-supported candidates went 15-for-17 in GOP primaries for the U.S. Senate, U.S. House and governorships in which no incumbent ran.” In 2020, all but two Trump-endorsed candidates won their respective Republican primaries.
But that success rate is because-- at least so far-- Trump has provided endorsements to mainly shoe-in candidates or former aides. That includes Republican incumbents like South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who defeated his Democratic opponent in 2016 by more than 20 percentage points, and Sen. Mike Crapo from the deeply red state of Idaho. Former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is following the footsteps of her dad and running for Arkansas governor, has also been endorsed. So too has former White House director of advance Max Miller, a GOP primary contender for Ohio’s 16th congressional district who is challenging one of the ten House Republicans who voted for Trump’s second impeachment.
Trump's endorsement is definitely key to winning Republican nominations. But, there's a different story for general election campaigns. In deep red districts, of course, Trump's endorsement in the general is a help, even if not needed. But in districts where independents are the decisive factor in deciding a race, a Trump endorsement could spell disaster and defeat. Will it help to be endorsed by Trump in the hot Alaska open-seat election, during the contentious Senate battle where it will be Trump-and-probably-Palin vs Lisa Murkowski? Incumbent Republicans in districts Trump lost might be fools to solicit his endorsement-- like in CA-21 (Biden won with 54.4%), CA-25 (Biden won with 54.0%), CA-39 (Biden won with 54.1%), Michelle Steel (Biden won with 49.7%), FL-27 (Biden won with 51.3%), NE-02 (Biden won with 52.3%), NY-24 (where Biden won with 53.4%), PA-01 (where Biden won with 52.4%), TX-24 (where Biden won with 51.9%). In fact, there were half a dozen races in Texas where Trump just won by 1-3 points and where his endorsement in a midterm could prove more harmful than helpful. And then there's suburban MO-02, where Ann Wagner was reelected but where Trump and Biden were tied at 49.2% to 49.2%. She's not going to want him coming into her district campaigning for her. The NRCC is targeting Matt Cartwright again next year. But Cartwright beat his Trumpist opponent, Jim Bognet, last year 51.8% to 48.2%, even while Trump squeezed out a narrow 51.7% to 47.3% victory over Biden. There are plenty of battleground districts like this where Republican candidates might feel they'd be better off without the stench of Trump tainting their campaigns.
It doesn't sound like the progressive front-runner in the North Carolina open-seat Senate race, Erica Smith, is too worried about Trump endorsing whichever wingnut-- possibly even daughter-in-law Lara Trump-- wins the GOP nomination. "As I've made clear, my campaign is about amplifying the voices and advocating for the needs of working people," she told me this morning. "Donald Trump is anti-union, anti-wage increase, anti-farmer, anti-affordable healthcare, pro-poverty, pro-corporate, twice impeached and banned on social media. While he certainly knows how to energize his base, his support of my opponent would be quite fitting given that I plan to take on the corruption and betrayal of the American working class that he represents. I'm standing up for people across North Carolina and across this country and I know that our diverse working-class coalition can defeat Donald Trump and anyone else who stands in our way."
Lucas Kunce, another grassroots progressive running for an open Senate seat in a state that went for Trump-- in his case, Missouri, where Trump is more popular than he is in North Carolina-- welcomes a Trump endorsement of whomever the GOP nominates to run against him. "A Trump endorsement of any Republican in the race," he told me today, "gives us the opportunity to contrast progressive populism-- our mission to fundamentally change who holds power in this country, from massive corporations to working people-- with their false brand of populism funded by billionaires seeking to divide us while they continue stripping our communites for parts. That difference is the foundation of our campaign. An inclusive agenda for fundamental change that makes it so hardworking people don't have to live paycheck to paycheck or one disaster from bankruptcy like my family did growing up."
Derek Marshall, the progressive House candidate in the huge eastern California district that starts in the San Bernardino suburbs and goes all the way up along the Nevada border nearly as far north as Sacramento, will be facing a Trumpist freshman, Jay Obernolte, who will surely have one of those rote one-size-fits-all Trump endorsements. This afternoon, Derek told me that "Trump is trying to get himself on the ballot in 2022 by tying his decision to run on whether Republicans pick up the House in 2022. I understand that he’s trying to excite the base for Republicans, but I would say that that excitement will be matched by triggering anti-Trump liberals."