WASHINGTON — The Republican field seeking to deny former President Donald Trump his party’s nomination in 2024 grew this week, potentially improving his chances of winning it anyway against divided opposition.
But far from seeing Trump as a sure thing, Senate Republicans seem content to go their own way in the presidential race. Some are endorsing Trump, while others are decidedly not going that route.
Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., became the highest-ranking lawmaker to endorse someone other than Trump when he appeared in North Charleston, S.C., at the presidential campaign launch for Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., on Monday. A person familiar with Thune’s thinking said the senator had previously encouraged Scott to enter the race, believing that his message could resonate.
Thune was joined by fellow South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds in the Scott column. Scott’s senior senator, Judiciary Committee ranking member Lindsey Graham, has supported Trump’s bid for another term from the outset, even as both Scott and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley have entered the field.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., who has not yet endorsed for 2024, was asked on CNN on Sunday about Trump’s general election prospects and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ argument that the only candidates who could win next year are himself or President Joe Biden.
“I don’t think Trump can win a general election, but that’s a nice way for him to diss people like Tim Scott, who’s a pretty formidable candidate,” Cassidy said of DeSantis. “So, you just have to take this as a competitor trying to diss others.”
Cassidy also noted that Trump’s track record on Republican endorsements in 2022 Senate races did not necessarily yield the most electable candidates. Democrats, who could have lost control of the Senate last year, ended up gaining one seat, in Pennsylvania. Ahead of next year’s elections, Democrats dominate the list of most vulnerable incumbents.
“I think the president’s kind of high-profile endorsement of those candidates actually hurt those candidates, at least in the general election,” Cassidy said. “If past is prologue, that means President Trump is going to have a hard time in those swing states, which means that he cannot win a general election.”
Last week, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters in his state that Republicans “need to come up with an alternative “ because Trump’s “time has passed him by.”
“There’s no question that President Trump has some enthusiastic supporters in his base,” Cornyn said. “That works well for him in a Republican primary, but not well when you need to expand your appeal in a general election.”
DeSantis v. Trump
Never Back Down, the DeSantis-supporting Super PAC, is arguing that only the Florida governor and the former president are viable, even as senators have begun to pick different candidates.
“As we saw at his recent visits to Iowa and New Hampshire, there is growing momentum behind the Governor [DeSantis] because he is the only Republican who doesn’t just talk the talk, he follows through on the hard fights like taking on woke corporations,” Never Back Down PAC communications director Erin Perrine said in a statement.
Trump, for his part, welcomed Scott to the race on Monday, highlighting their shared work on tax policy while he was president.
“Tim is a big step up from Ron DeSanctimonious, who is totally unelectable. I got Opportunity Zones done with Tim, a big deal that has been highly successful. Good luck Tim!” Trump posted on his social media site, Truth Social.
Of Trump’s Senate endorsements to date, the most notable remains National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Steve Daines of Montana.
Trump’s allies and other Republican campaigns, as well as Biden, ribbed DeSantis on Wednesday after his campaign launch on Twitter was riddled with technology issues as the platform repeatedly crashed. When DeSantis finally began his announcement, the number of people tuned in had dropped.
“Not the greatest start for the DeSantis campaign when Joe Biden is clowning you,” Rep. Wesley Hunt, R-Texas, who has endorsed Trump, said in a tweet.
In a Q&A with Twitter CEO Elon Musk and others, including Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., DeSantis was asked how he would work with Congress to rein in “overreach of government bureaucracy.”
“Buckle up when I get in there, because the status quo is not acceptable, and we are going to make sure that we re-constitutionalize this government,” DeSantis answered. “These agencies are totally out of control. There’s no accountability.”
DeSantis sought to paint himself as a candidate who follows through on his campaign promises, saying that he’s studied Article II of the Constitution and understands the “leverage points” he can use to implement his agenda. He also pushed back on criticism of certain policies in Florida, such as books banned at public schools in the state.
New Hampshire in play?
Also taking a wait-and-see approach to the presidential race are Republican voters in New Hampshire, according to former Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown, who is now a New Hampshire resident who made an unsuccessful bid to come back as a Granite State senator in 2014.
Brown hosted Haley for a barbecue on Wednesday night, and said he plans to hold similar events with other Republican candidates, as he did during the 2016 cycle.
“Republicans take it very seriously,” Brown said. “It’s ingrained, and they take it very, very seriously. And while Trump has a lead, it’s not over. And if he thinks he’s just going to sit back and rest on his laurels, respectfully, I don’t think New Hampshire people, whether they’re his supporters or not, are going to really accept that.”
Brown said he’s also been in touch with other GOP candidates and likely candidates, including Scott, DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy.
Brown said he’s still in touch with some Senate colleagues, and some are holding off from making presidential endorsements while working on issues such as the debt ceiling and border security.