Trump’s endorsement long game pays off in early efforts to sink DeSantis

As JD Vance called to thank those who backed his successful Senate campaign in Ohio last fall, donors on the other end of the line shared a useful bit of information.

Establishment Republicans had been calling around to some of the same people, attempting to build support for a potential 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 former President Donald Trump’s endorsement, moved to quickly return the favor.

The “Hillbilly Elegy” author soon penned an endorsement of Trump’s 2024 bid for The Wall Street Journal — an early missile in a full-scale effort by the former president’s allies to ground a DeSantis campaign before it launched.

Trump is now counting on those relationships developed during his two previous campaigns and four years in the White House to build a political juggernaut capable of rolling to the GOP nomination.

For reasons of personal affinity, political calculation and for being purely transactional, he is reaping the benefits of his past support for Republicans who are now in a position to reciprocate. Some of his endorsements have backfired on the party, particularly during the 2022 midterms in battlegrounds such as Arizona and Pennsylvania. But others are bearing fruit for Trump himself just in time for a showdown with DeSantis who, according to polls, remains his closest rival.

As of Friday, Trump had endorsements from more than 50 members of Congress: nine senators and 48 representatives, including more than half of the Florida Republicans serving in the House.

“It was like a knife through butter,” one Trump campaign official said of efforts to lock up the Florida endorsements. “We did not have to do a lot of convincing.”

While the strong show of support doesn’t quite give Trump an aura of invincibility, it contributes to a widely held perception — backed by polling — that he is the exclusive favorite for the nomination at this moment in time. And the endorsements 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 mustered three congressional endorsements, with only one coming from a Florida member: his former secretary of state, Rep. Laurel Lee. A separate senior aide to Trump said that the campaign did not even attempt to get Lee’s endorsement because of her ties to the DeSantis administration.

DeSantis’ allies say, however, that Trump’s endorsement list shows weakness, not strength.

“Donald Trump had nearly unanimous Republican support in 2020 and every voice that isn’t behind him now is a defection,” said Erin Perrine, a spokeswoman for Never Back Down, a pro-DeSantis super PAC. “Trump only has ground to lose on endorsements while Governor DeSantis, who isn’t even an announced candidate, continues to have a growing base of support.

But some DeSantis supporters have taken rueful note of the flood of institutional support for Trump.

“There’s definite concern,” said Dan Eberhart, a longtime DeSantis donor who remains squarely in the Florida governor’s camp. “It feels very much like Trump is securely in the lead.”

“If DeSantis was going to be the nominee, you’d think he’d have to be ahead in Florida to start,” 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 DeSantis ally. A spokesperson for Bean declined to comment.

Trump’s political team, this official added, has received signals from some members who are concerned about DeSantis vetoing state budget items important to their congressional districts. There’s hope among Trump’s team that these members will publicly support the former president after the state budget process is no longer in play and DeSantis has less sway over where the funding can flow.

Trump rolled out many of the Florida endorsements this week in 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 resort in Palm Beach.

During the nearly four-hour dinner, much of the conversation focused on foreign policy, including extensive discussions about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, according to the campaign official, who was at the event. DeSantis’ name came up briefly when Trump bragged about polling that showed him surging 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 talking about ‘Ron, Ron, Ron’ as he discussed the poll numbers.”

Each member of the Florida delegation in attendance received a copy of Trump’s new book, “Letters to Trump,” with a personalized hand-written message.

Adding insult to DeSantis’ home-state injury this week, one House member from another state, Rep. Lance Gooden of Texas, walked out of a Washington meeting with the governor and promptly endorsed Trump. The endorsement caught the Trump team off guard.

“The campaign had to scramble to get a press release and graphics together,” said the campaign official.

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 political director in the Trump White House, is leading that project, but campaign co-managers Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita are also using their contacts to line up support for the former president, along with senior adviser Jason Miller, according to Trump aides.

The main weapon, though, is Trump, who meets with elected officials in person at Mar-a-Lago or on the campaign trail and is accessible by phone, one senior aide said.

“We’re often inviting members to join the president, meet with them here at the campaign and then the president can obviously make the ask himself,” the aide said. “A lot of these members don’t even necessarily need that ask to happen.”

Last Friday, Trump timed a dinner with a half-dozen congressional Republicans from Tennessee and their spouses to a speech he delivered at a Republican National Committee donor retreat in Nashville.

“Man, every single person here has benefited from him,” the senior Trump aide recalled thinking while watching the president interact with the lawmakers for three hours. Trump emerged with endorsements from all six, including Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty, who had won elections with Trump’s help.

Endorsements are only one part of the early phase of a presidential primary — grassroots organizing, fundraising and staffing are among the others — but Trump aides say they see significant value in racking them up. Specifically, the senior aide said, they feed 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 local — and in some cases national — media.

Rep. Alex Mooney, a Republican Senate hopeful in West Virginia, described his Trump 2024 endorsement in transactional terms. The former president, he noted, backed him in a tough House primary last year and he hopes the support will extend to his Senate bid next year in a state in which the GOP hopes to unseat Democratic incumbent Joe Manchin. It’s no sure thing, though. Trump also is a fan of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, who is considering jumping into the primary with Mooney.

“Honestly, running for Senate was a continuation of his endorsement last year in that tough primary that I had,” Mooney said of Trump. “I told him that we gotta get Manchin next. … I hope he’ll continue to endorse and support me, because that was kind of the plan all along, I thought. But if not, maybe he’ll just let me and Justice fight it out and support whoever wins the primary.”

Vance said that polling and Republican outrage over Trump’s indictment in Manhattan on charges related to payments to adult film actor Stormy Daniels have reinforced support around the former president. The Ohio senator, who said he has encouraged his colleagues in the chamber to join him in endorsing and believes several are soon to follow, described his own endorsement of Trump as one made out of deep loyalty.

“I think our politics would work a lot 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.”

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