WASHINGTON (AP) — Long before Donald Trump announced his campaign to retake the White House, he launched a quieter campaign to rack up Republican endorsements.
In early 2021, after Trump lost to Democrat Joe Biden and inspired a mob of supporters to attack the Capitol trying to overturn the 2020 election, the defeated president started laying the groundwork for the support in Congress he would need for a return.
With lavish three-hour dinners hosted at his private clubs, telephone town-hall fundraisers, rides on his private jet and endorsements of his own up and down the ballot, Trump schmoozed and strategized and wined-and-dined his way to the GOP lawmakers’ support.
By the time of the first 2024 caucus in Iowa this month, Trump had secured endorsements from 120 House Republicans and nearly half the Republicans in the Senate. On Wednesday, after Trump won the New Hampshire primary, the number of endorsements climbed even higher, with a solid majority of Republicans in both chambers of Congress.
“It’s past time for the Republican Party to unite around President Trump,” said Speaker Mike Johnson, setting the tone after Trump’s New Hampshire victory.
It’s a remarkable turnaround for Trump, whose campaign is being powered not only by loyal voters but also by elected Republicans in Congress. And those lawmakers appear unwilling or unable to stop his rise, almost ensuring Trump has no institutional roadblocks to the eventual party nomination and a potential return to power.
Trump himself marveled at those standing behind him on election night in New Hampshire, where he was trying to drive his remaining rival, Nikki Haley, out of the race with a show of endorsements from her home state of South Carolina. He singled out Sen. Tim Scott, suggesting he “must really hate” Haley, the state’s former governor.
The senator, once a Republican presidential candidate himself, stepped up to correct Trump, gushing: "I just love you."
The race for endorsements, years in the making, has been painstakingly orchestrated as a way to bring a certain official Washington legitimacy to Trump, who was twice impeached by the House, including for the insurrection at the Capitol. Trump now faces federal charges of defrauding voters in the run-up to the Capitol attack, among dozens of other charges in several different court cases.
Once facing pockets of resistance in Congress, Trump has essentially won over all segments of the Republican Party on Capitol Hill — the House GOP leadership team, including Whip Tom Emmer who had voted to certify Biden’s election, to the chairman of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, Rep. Bob Good of Virginia, who quickly switched sides last week when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended his presidential campaign.
The Republicans in the Senate, who have provided a stable of Trump skeptics, some more vocal than others, are also falling in line, save for a few. Trump is even picking up backing from a New York lawmaker in a House district that Biden won last time, with more swing-district Republicans expected to join.
What becomes glaring now are the hold-outs, most notably Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, and a few top Republican senators, who appear deeply wary of Trump’s return and have yet to give him the nod.
"I don’t have any announcement to make on the presidential election, in fact, you all may recall I’ve stayed essentially out of it," said McConnell ahead of New Hampshire. He had issued a scathing indictment of Trump in 2021, blaming the defeated president for the Capitol attack, but voted to acquit him during the Senate impeachment trial.
While McConnell has signaled he would support the eventual Republican nominee, the same comment the second-ranking Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota made Wednesday to reporters at the Capitol, that’s usually not good enough for Trump.
For Trump, a supportive nod is not sufficient. He wants a full-throated endorsement.
The “Big E,” as some have said he calls it.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a key Trump ally, said it’s a moment of “true change” for the GOP. Any Republican who isn’t willing to adapt to his policies, “we are completely eradicating from the party.”
“It’s true!” she wrote later on social media, posting her interview remarks.
So far, Trump has received endorsements from 30 of the Republican senators and some 120 Republican members of the House — far and away beyond those for Haley or even DeSantis, a former congressman who suspended his campaign after a disappointing finish in Iowa. He later endorsed Trump.
Experts have warned that democracies that face threats like Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election have a better chance at survival when the political parties stand up for the results of free and fair elections — rather than fuel false conspiracy theories of fraud, as Trump and allies in Congress, have done.
That’s not happening, as Trump keeps collecting endorsements on his march to the GOP nomination.
“People want to get behind the nominee,” lamented Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, the only senator who voted to convict Trump on both impeachments, including on the charge of inciting the insurrection at the Capitol.
“Just like four years ago and four years before that —people say pretty strong things," Romney said. “And then when he becomes a nominee, they just kiss the ring, as Donald Trump has said.”
“Oh, I’m not going to be doing that,” Romney said.
Trump’s team says winning over the holdouts has been easier than one might think, insisting there are no pressure campaigns, sticks to go with the carrots that Trump uses to court lawmakers over phone calls and long dinners at his Mar-a-Lago and Bedminster clubs.
In fact, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Josh Hawley, who helped lead Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election but had yet to endorse, faced Trump’s warning on social media to be “very careful” of their own political campaigns. Hawley endorsed soon thereafter.
Cruz told AP that while he and Trump “beat the living daylights” out of each other in the 2016 race — when Trump savaged the senator’s wife and family with verbal assaults — he made his way to Trump Tower afterward, becoming Trump’s “strongest” Senate ally.
“And if he’s reelected in November, and I hope he is, I will again be Donald Trump’s strongest ally in the Senate,” Cruz said.
At times the lawmakers are not speaking directly to Trump but his team working on the endorsements, led by former White House Political Director, Brian Jack, who remains his top liaison to Capitol Hill.
Jack, now a senior adviser to the campaign, said securing the endorsements has been “not hard at all, given the hundreds and hundreds of hours President Trump has invested in relationship development and the deep connections he maintains across the party.”
One longtime Trump backer, GOP Sen. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, said after making her endorsement in time for Iowa she expects to meet with Trump within 30 days to talk about her priorities in her state.
To those who are still holding out, Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla, told the AP at Trump’s victory party in Nashua it’s “not about the train leaving the station or one of those political cliches everybody likes to use. It’s about having a united Republican Party and winning back the White House in 2024.”
Rep. William Timmons was among the South Carolina lawmakers that Trump’s campaign brought to New Hampshire to appear at a rally in a display of force.
South Carolina’s primary is next month, and Timmons said he was working to win over Republican colleagues, “putting the hard press" on those who had previously backed Scott.
His message to those who have yet to endorse Trump: “Come on in. The water’s fine,” he said.