When JD Vance called to thank supporters of his successful Senate campaign in Ohio last fall, donors on the other end of the line shared helpful information.
Established Republicans had been calling some of the same people, trying to build support for a possible presidential run by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, according to two sources familiar with Vance’s conversations. Vance, who owed his victory in large part to the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, moved to quickly return the favor.
The author of «Hillbilly Elegy» soon wrote a approval from Trump’s 2024 bid per The Wall Street Journal, an early missile in a large-scale effort by the former president’s allies to fund a DeSantis campaign ahead of its launch.
Trump is now counting on those relationships developed during his previous two campaigns and four years in the White House to build a political giant capable of reaching the Republican nomination.
For reasons of personal affinity, political calculation, and being purely transactional, he is reaping the benefits of his past support for Republicans that they are now in a position to reciprocate. Some of his endorsements have failed. in the party, particularly during the 2022 midterm elections in battlegrounds like Arizona and Pennsylvania. But others are paying off for Trump himself just in time for a showdown with DeSantis who, according to polls, remains his closest rival..
As of Friday, Trump had the backing of more than 50 members of Congress: nine senators and 48 representatives, including more than half of Florida’s Republicans serving in the House.
“It was like a knife through butter,” a Trump campaign official said of efforts to secure Florida endorsements. «We didn’t have to do a lot of convincing.»
While the strong show of support doesn’t give Trump an aura of invincibility, it contributes to a widespread perception, backed by polls, that he is the sole favorite for the nomination right now. And the endorsers are putting pressure on the rest of the field to show similar signs of strength to voters and donors.
DeSantis, who has yet to declare his candidacy, has won three congressional endorsements, and only one has come from a Florida member: his former secretary of state, Rep. Laurel Lee. Another senior Trump adviser said the campaign didn’t even try to win Lee’s endorsement because of her ties to the DeSantis administration.
DeSantis’s allies say, however, that Trump’s endorsement list shows weakness, not strength.
“Donald Trump had near unanimous Republican support in 2020 and every voice not behind him is now a defection,” said Erin Perrine, a spokeswoman for Never Back Down, a pro-DeSantis super PAC. “Trump only has ground to lose in endorsements, while Governor DeSantis, who is not even an announced candidate, continues to have a growing support base.
But some DeSantis supporters have ruefully taken note of the outpouring of institutional support for Trump.
“There is definitely a concern,” said Dan Eberhart, a longtime DeSantis donor who remains squarely in the Florida governor’s camp. «It looks like Trump is firmly in the lead.»
“If DeSantis was going to be the nominee, you’d think he’d have to be up front in Florida to start with,” Eberhart added.
The Trump campaign official predicted that DeSantis may receive only one additional endorsement from his state’s congressional delegation: Rep. Aaron Bean, a former Republican member of the Florida Senate who was a close ally of DeSantis. A spokesman for Bean declined to comment.
Trump’s political team, this official added, has received signals from some members who are concerned about DeSantis’ veto on elements of the state budget important to their constituencies. There is hope among the Trump team that these members will publicly support the former president after the state budget process is no longer in play and DeSantis has less influence over where the funds can flow.
Trump introduced many of Florida’s endorsements this week with a dramatic drumbeat timed to coincide with DeSantis’ meeting with lawmakers in Washington. Trump then invited those Republicans to a private dinner Thursday at Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach resort.
During the nearly four-hour dinner, much of the conversation turned to foreign policy, including lengthy discussions of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to the campaign official who was at the event. DeSantis’ name came up briefly when Trump bragged that polls showed him rising after being indicted by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.
“He talks about DeSantis in private the same way he does in public,” the campaign official said. «I can’t remember if he used a nickname or not, but I do remember him excitedly going ‘Ron, Ron, Ron’ as he discussed the poll numbers.»
Each member of the Florida delegation who attended received a copy of Trump’s new book, «Letters to Trump,» complete with a personalized handwritten message.
Adding insult to injury from DeSantis’ home state this week, a House member from another state, Rep. Lance Gooden of Texas, walked out of a Washington meeting with the governor and quickly endorsed Trump. The endorsement caught Trump’s team off guard.
“The campaign had to fight to get a press release and graphics together,” the campaign official said.
The efforts built on the campaign’s strategy of coordinating endorsement parades in states Trump has visited in recent months, from South Carolina and Iowa to Texas and Tennessee. Brian Jack, who served as Trump’s White House political director, is leading that project, but co-campaign managers Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita are also using their connections to rally support for the former president, along with senior adviser Jason Miller. according to Trump advisers.
The main weapon, however, is Trump, who meets elected officials in person at Mar-a-Lago or during the campaign trail and is accessible by phone, a senior adviser said.
“We often invite members to join the president, meet with them here on the campaign trail, and then the president can obviously ask the question himself,” the aide said. «Many of these members don’t even necessarily need that request to happen.»
Last Friday, Trump scheduled a dinner with half a dozen Tennessee congressional Republicans and their spouses with a speech he delivered at a Republican National Committee donor retreat in Nashville.
“Man, every single person here has benefited from it,” Trump’s senior adviser recalled thinking as he watched the president interact with lawmakers for three hours. Trump came out with the endorsements of all six, including Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty, who had won the election with Trump’s help.
Endorsements are just one part of the initial phase of a presidential primary — grassroots organizing, fundraising and staffing are some of the others — but Trump aides say they see significant value in accumulating them. Specifically, the senior aide said, they feed into the other aspects of the campaign. Each of the elected officials has their own organization in their home state or district, each has a donor network that can be tapped for Trump, and each can act as a surrogate in the local and, in some cases, national media. .
Rep. Alex Mooney, a Republican Senate hopeful in West Virginia, described his endorsement of Trump 2024 in transactional terms. The former president, he noted, endorsed him in a tough House primary last year and hopes that support will spill over to his Senate bid next year in a state where the GOP hopes to unseat Democratic incumbent Joe Manchin. However, it is not a sure thing. Trump is also a fan of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, who is considering running in the primary with Mooney.
“Honestly, running for the Senate was a continuation of his endorsement last year in that tough primary that I had,” Mooney said of Trump. “I told him we have to find Manchin next. … I hope he continues to back me and support me, because that was the plan all along, I thought. But if not, maybe he’ll just let me and Justice fight and support whoever wins the primary.»
Vance said polling and Republican outrage over Trump’s impeachment in Manhattan on charges related to payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels have bolstered support for the former president. The Ohio senator, who said he has encouraged his colleagues in the House to join him and believes several will soon follow, described his own endorsement of Trump as one made out of deep loyalty.
“I think our politics would work much better if people were loyal to their friends, and he was very supportive of me,” Vance said. «I think it’s important not to stab your friends in the back.»