Mar 16, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Kissing the ring: Inside the GOP courtship of Trump's endorsement

Illustration of a gold ring with MAGA engraved on the front

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Donald Trump is preparing to make a new round of 2022 endorsements starting as soon as this week, people familiar with his thinking tell Axios.

Why it matters: The former president's endorsements could clear the field in competitive Republican primaries. Depending on how vengeful he's feeling, and how many challengers to same-party incumbents he backs, they also could jam the party establishment.

The big picture: Past presidents have typically paused before wading into domestic politics. Less than two months after leaving office, Trump has endorsed more than a dozen Republicans — a sign of his determination to sustain control of the GOP.

Behind the scenes: It's not just aspiring candidates. Sitting GOP House members and senators are calling on him at Mar-a-Lago.

  • Trump plans to endorse Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) soon, according to a source familiar with Trump's thinking.
  • An endorsement would be no surprise — Paul is a friend, golfing buddy and prominent cable news defender of Trump — but the timing would be noteworthy, given Trump is sitting on other requests from incumbents.
  • Even members seen as facing largely safe reelections are asking for Trump's early endorsement to ward off serious primary challengers — call it the Thom Tillis path.
  • Sens. Todd Young (R-Ind.) and James Lankford (R-Okla.) reached out to Trump recently to ask for his backing. Their requests remain "under consideration," says a source familiar with the situation.
  • Spokespersons for Young and Lankford did not respond to a request for comment.

Between the lines: Since leaving office, Trump has endorsed some incumbents he knows well, including Sens. Jerry Moran of Kansas, Tim Scott of South Carolina and John Kennedy of Louisiana, as well as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster.

  • He's also endorsing national and state party chairs, effectively quashing any rivals.
  • He ensured Ronna Romney McDaniel's reelection to a third term as Republican National Committee chair.
  • He's also endorsed allies in crucial swing states — Kelli Ward for state party chair in Arizona, and Bob Paduchik in Ohio. Both won.

The intrigue: Trump endorsed his former press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders in the Arkansas governor's race, and Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin in his bid for attorney general of Arkansas.

  • Trump's also considering a potential endorsement in the Georgia secretary of state's race, according to a source familiar with the matter. Incumbent Brad Raffensperger earned his enmity instead of his endorsement with his pushback against criticism of the state's election conduct.

What we're watching: Trump wants to remove every Republican officeholder who voted to impeach or convict him.

  • There's one senator in that category who's running for reelection in 2022 — Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — and Trump is hellbent on defeating her.
  • The state Republican Party has already censured Murkowski and committed to running a candidate against her.
  • The only 2022 congressional primary challenger Trump has endorsed so far is a former White House aide, Max Miller, against Rep. Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio. He voted to impeach Trump.

One lingering question is how Trump will approach open Senate seats.

  • Aspiring candidates have been aggressively courting the former president.
  • They include Trump's former ambassador to Slovenia, Lynda Blanchard, who's running in Alabama.
  • She recently hosted a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago.

The bottom line: Even after Jan. 6, many prominent Republicans want Trump's support because they believe it will ensure their political survival.

  • Among the dozens who have called or visited at Mar-a-Lago since he left the White House, per a source familiar with those interactions: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise and more than two dozen senators, including Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, who's chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
  • Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has been shuttling back and forth, and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) recently held a fundraiser at Trump's private club.
  • The former president is headlining the upcoming RNC donor retreat, a portion of which has been moved to Mar-a-Lago.
  • Trump's Save America PAC has already banked more than $80 million, a war chest that GOP leaders are eyeing closely and in some cases, warily.

Yes, but: The conspicuous exception is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. He last spoke to Trump in December and, after his criticism of the former president for the Jan. 6 Capitol siege, may never speak to him again.

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