GOP leaders are keeping their powder dry when it comes to former President Trump’s 2024 campaign, declining to publicly back him despite his lead in most primary polls.
Prominent Republicans in early-voting states like Iowa and South Carolina have held off on endorsing him, as have some longtime allies in Washington, such as Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.).
The reluctance to weigh in comes as the Republican field starts to solidify and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), likely Trump’s most formidable primary opponent, is thought to be moving closer to his own White House bid.
“They’re waiting to see what Trump’s campaign is going to be about,” said Brian Seitchik, an Arizona-based GOP strategist and Trump campaign alum.
“I think people who support Donald Trump would like the campaign to be about inflation, to be about securing the border, to talk about the successes of his administration,” Seitchik continued. “I think people are fearful the campaign is going to be a grievance tour, and about how the race was stolen from him and how he doesn’t get enough credit for this or enough credit for that.”
Trump made his first notable foray onto the 2024 campaign trail this past week, visiting the crucial early-voting states of New Hampshire and South Carolina. The former president addressed officials at the New Hampshire Republican Party’s annual meeting and then unveiled his South Carolina leadership at the State House in Columbia.
Major figures like South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) were in attendance at the event, which included an audience of 200 people. Still, Trump has not drawn the number of endorsements he did during his last campaign in 2020, and several prominent Republicans in the region were notably absent, including former Gov. Nikki Haley (R-S.C.), a Trump administration alum who is said to be planning a challenge to her ex-boss.
“If you’re the former president then why don’t you have every sitting Republican congressman in South Carolina endorsing you?” said Alex Stroman, a former spokesperson for Trump’s inaugural committee and former executive director for the South Carolina GOP.
The scaled-down nature of Trump’s campaign events over the weekend raised eyebrows among observers used to his normally crowded and raucous rallies. While critics said the weekend’s events were a sign of what could be Trump’s declining stock in the GOP, others said it was more likely to be a part of a broader strategy.
One alum of Trump’s 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns told The Hill that the more intimate events make Trump look more presidential.
“It was smart to do that,” the alum said. “Because that’s the classic hit, who is the x-factor at the rallies? How is it going to go? Is he just going to go off script way too much?”
Of course, there is still plenty of time for Trump to formally receive the backing of fellow Republican figures. On Tuesday, Politico reported that Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), who Trump endorsed in 2022, has told allies that he plans on supporting Trump in 2024. Vance’s fellow freshman Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.) told the outlet that the former president has his support.
And Trump continues to hold a strong lead in most 2024 polls. An Emerson College survey released last week showed Trump with a 26-point lead over DeSantis, while a Harvard CAPS-Harris poll from last week shows Trump leading DeSantis by 20 points.
“The reality of this situation is that he is leading in all of these polls because people are hurting over the course of these past few years and I think the American public believes he is the person who can get us back to a state of normalcy,” freshman Rep. Wesley Hunt (R-Texas), a supporter of the former president, said in an interview with The Hill.
Other Republicans are more skeptical, arguing that Trump’s presence in the race this early on puts him at an advantage in the polls for the time being.
“It’s easy to be the front-runner when you’re the only person in the race,” Stroman said.
Republicans, both Trump supporters and critics, say they expect to see a robust 2024 primary.
DeSantis, by and large, is seen by many in the GOP as the next-best replacement for the former president and appears to be inching closer to a 2024 bid. Other contenders said to be exploring presidential campaigns include Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R). Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) has also been floated as a possible contender and is set to attend the Polk County Iowa GOP’s annual Lincoln Dinner next month.
Various Republicans say they are waiting to see how the primary plays out, but Trump’s supporters argue that the former president’s record is reason enough to endorse him out of the gate.
“All of these people I think are great and will be great leaders for the future, but the reason why they still aren’t resonating is that they’re still unproven,” Hunt said.
But Trump has had harsher words for those looking to challenge him, particularly DeSantis.
“I do think it would be a great act of disloyalty because, you know, I got him in. He had no chance. His political life was over,” Trump told The Associated Press on Saturday.
The terse words from Trump sent a strong signal to DeSantis, who was once seen as one of the former president’s key allies.
“He is clearly fearful of the ascension of Ron DeSantis and wants to cut him off as quickly as he can,” Seitchik said. “I think he also wants to give him a taste of what the campaign would be like.”
The Florida governor hit back at Trump on Tuesday, contrasting his successful reelection bid in 2022 with the former president’s unsuccessful one in 2020.
“The people are able to render a judgment on that whether they reelect you or not and I’m happy to say in my case not only did we win reelection, we won with the highest percentage of the vote that any Republican governor candidate has in the history of the state of Florida,” DeSantis said to applause.
And while Trump’s Republican critics say the primary will not be a coronation for the former president, they maintain it won’t be one for DeSantis either.
In 2016, Trump saw great success in giving his Republican opponents insulting nicknames. Trump infamously dubbed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) as “Low Energy Jeb,” while Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was branded “Lttle Marco.”
“It is a test of wills and stamina on so many levels and enduring the daily and potentially hourly attacks of Donald Trump is part of the process,” Seitchik said.
And while Trump’s endorsed candidates largely underperformed in last year’s general election, his brand still proved to be successful in the primaries.
“As evidenced by the success he had in the primaries last year, not the general, but the success he had in the primaries, he’s still the guy to beat,” Seitchik said. “Until someone shows that they have the will and the mettle to stand up to Donald Trump, it’s a pretty tough cliff to jump off of.”