Donald Trump recently extended an enticing offer to Vernon Jones: drop your flailing gubernatorial bid to run for a US House seat in Georgia, and you’ll earn the former President’s endorsement.
Jones is still debating whether to stick with the uphill race against former Sen. David Perdue, who is backed by Trump, and incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who has drawn the former President’s wrath for refusing to flout the law and overturn his loss in 2020.
But either way, his decision could pose an awkward problem for Trump. If Jones runs for the 10th congressional district, which is one of the seats he is considering, it would put Trump directly at odds with several members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus who have already endorsed a different candidate in that contest. One Georgia Republican said the delegation would be frustrated if Jones launches a congressional bid there with Trump’s official blessing.
And if Jones rejects Trump’s overture, it would be the second time in as many weeks that the former President has failed to clear the field for his preferred candidate. Trump attempted a similar maneuver in North Carolina, Trump-backed Rep. Ted Budd has failed to emerge as the definitive front-runner in a US Senate primary race against former Gov. Pat McCrory and former Rep. Mark Walker. Trump offered to endorse Walker if he dropped out and ran for a House seat, but the former congressman declined, leaving the contest a three-way race.
Those primary struggles are only adding to the growing frustrations that some of Trump’s endorsements have created in certain corners of the GOP. With end-of-the-year finance reports now public, it’s clear some of Trump’s candidates have struggled to raise cash or pull ahead in the polls — even as the former President built a massive war chest of his own last year.
Some of his staunchest allies have also expressed concern that the former President is choosing the wrong candidate in certain races. Trump sparked a rare backlash among some of his staunchest allies last week when he threw his weight behind Morgan Ortagus, a former State Department spokesperson during the Trump administration, for a Tennessee congressional district. That put Trump directly at odds with a number of prominent conservatives, including Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, who are backing another candidate – Robby Starbuck – for the seat instead.
Greene said that during a visit last week to Florida, she explained to Trump why she thought Starbuck was the better choice over Ortagus.
“He’s really a good representative of the base. And he’s been so loyal to President Trump,” Greene said. “But what bothered me about Morgan Ortagus is, she sent an email on January 19, 2021, and it was saying goodbye to everybody. And she said, ‘I look forward to faithfully serving the incoming Biden administration.’ “
Greene, however, defended Trump’s decision-making: “He didn’t know about that email. I seriously don’t think she would have had his support had he known about that email. … She doesn’t deserve his endorsement.”
Trump told Newsmax on Tuesday that he knew Ortagus, a former spokesperson for Trump’s State Department, and did not know social media influencer Starbuck. “I’ve done a lot of things that were somewhat controversial and they’ve worked out,” Trump said. “She’s solid.”
Ortagus has not yet officially announced her House campaign. But she went on Newsmax Tuesday and called Trump “the greatest president in my lifetime, especially on foreign policy.”
While Trump is the most powerful force in the GOP, the latest flare-ups surrounding some of his endorsements are threatening to create fractures among his core base of supporters and raising fresh questions about how many of his hand-picked candidates will ultimately make it across the finish line in November. It comes at a vulnerable time for Trump, with potential 2024 presidential GOP candidates swirling and investigations into him and his businesses escalating from New York to Georgia to Washington, DC.
But Trump’s supporters say that the former President’s stamp of approval remains the most coveted endorsement in the GOP and will greatly help his candidates win their primaries.
“President Trump will be campaigning aggressively throughout the midterms to ensure the MAGA ticket sweeps on Election Day,” said Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich. “This includes providing a platform for candidates at his massive Save America rallies and appearing in campaign commercials and fundraising solicitations.”
“Republican candidates are also flocking to Mar-A-Lago to seek the President’s support and raise money,” added Budowich, referring to Trump’s Florida resort. “There has never been an endorsement as powerful and consequential as President Trump’s.”
Some Trump’s allies upset over endorsements – or lack thereof
Inside Trump’s orbit, his hasty endorsement of Ortagus after a meeting with her left some advisers worried that he was reverting to old habits. When the former President first arrived in Florida last January, he lacked a thorough vetting process for candidates seeking his support and was persuaded on more than one occasion to endorse candidates following a single conversation with them or one of their Trump-aligned consultants.
“The Ortagus announcement gave me déjà vu,” said one Trump ally, who has been involved in previous endorsement decisions made by Trump.
Impulsive as it was, Trump’s endorsement of Ortagus, who has yet to formally declare her candidacy, was even more shocking to allies who had grown accustomed to a more orderly vetting process that was recently put into place by one of his top aides, Susie Wiles, amid a flood of requests from 2022 Republican hopefuls. Recently, Trump has been briefed on the latest polling, demographic makeup of a district and past and present statements by candidates before meeting with them at his Florida estate. Endorsement decisions are then discussed among his team and rolled out “when the timing is right,” said a person familiar with the process.
The dustup over the Tennessee race wasn’t the first time in recent months that Trump’s endorsement – or lack thereof – has unnerved those around him. In Texas, the former President’s July endorsement of incumbent Attorney General Ken Paxton drew criticism from some allies who worry that Paxton’s ongoing legal troubles could haunt him in a general election and tarnish Trump’s endorsement record. It harkened back to Trump’s endorsement of Sean Parnell, who had to drop out of the Senate primary race in Pennsylvania after a judge ordered his estranged wife primary custody over their children.
The scandal-plagued Paxton, who was indicted in 2015 on securities fraud charges, currently faces a professional misconduct investigation by the Texas Bar Association for his lawsuit challenging the 2020 election results. Last Thursday, the Travis County District Attorney’s office also ruled that Paxton had violated the state’s open records law by failing to turn over his communications from a visit to Washington, DC, last January, when he attended Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally before rioters stormed the US Capitol.
“They all have my complete and total endorsement,” Trump said at a rally near Houston last Saturday, name-checking Paxton.
In Georgia, if Jones transitions to a campaign for one of two congressional districts – either the 6th or 10th – it could help Perdue close the gap with Kemp, in a big boon for Trump. But it could also create new issues for Trump in the Peach State: in the 10th district, half a dozen members of the Freedom Caucus, including the seat’s current occupant, GOP Rep. Jody Hice, have already endorsed Timothy Barr in the race.
Meanwhile, in Missouri, Trump’s lack of endorsement in the crowded Senate primary has also become a source of consternation for some in his circle. Like Paxton, former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, who is leading the pack in most polls, has significant baggage that could alienate certain voters in a general election contest. Greitens resigned from office in 2018 in the midst of sexual misconduct allegations, an ethics probe and two criminal charges. Trump has heard from multiple allies who warn that Greitens could win the August primary if he doesn’t intervene soon, according to a person familiar with the matter.
So far, however, Trump doesn’t appear to be interested in endorsing an alternative candidate in the primary. One of the Trump allies who spoke with him about the race said he spoke positively of Missouri Rep. Billy Long and Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt during a recent conversation but “wasn’t gushing about either in a way that suggested he plans to endorse.” In a statement to CNN, Greitens’ campaign manager Dylan Johnson said the former Missouri governor “is the only true America First candidate in the race who will fight for President Trump’s agenda.” Johnson declined to address the pressure Trump is facing to endorse someone other than Greitens.
Many Trump candidates struggling in money race
Adding to Trump’s endorsement heartburn, many of his congressional candidates are struggling to raise money – whether they’re challengers taking on members who voted to impeach or convict the former president for inciting the attack on the Capitol year, or incumbents like Rep. Alex Mooney of West Virginia or Mary Miller of Illinois, who are taking on GOP colleagues in redistricting battles.
Harriet Hageman in Wyoming, Kelly Tshibaka in Alaska, John Gibbs and Steve Carra in Michigan, Joe Kent in Washington, Rep. Mo Brooks in Alabama, Miller and Mooney all lagged behind their GOP opponents’ fourth quarter fundraising efforts. The Trump-aligned Save America PAC has donated $5,000 to Trump-endorsed candidates, but it has not made up the gap.
Tim Murtaugh, an adviser to the Trump-endorsed candidates Hageman and Tshibaka, said his candidates will have the resources required to win and dismissed their opponents’ fundraising edge as war chests bankrolled by outsiders and elites.
Other Trump allies said the endorsement alone is invaluable to a Republican candidate.
“I think the value of the Trump endorsement through earned media, including his rallies and his name, will far outweigh whatever money they need to raise,” said Randy Evans, Trump’s former ambassador to Luxembourg.
Meanwhile, Trump and his family have been ramping up their fundraising efforts. Last week, Donald Trump, Jr. held a fundraiser for Hageman. And on February 10, Trump will host a fundraiser for Tshibaka.
While Trump has already hit the campaign trail to boost a few candidates whom he’s endorsed, his rallies haven’t had the overwhelming impact that some of those candidates had hoped.
After Trump appeared alongside Brooks last August, one Alabama Republican said the event didn’t result in a noticeable increase to Brooks’ poll numbers nor did it seem to boost the number of Alabama voters who are aware that Brooks is Trump’s preferred candidate in the Senate primary.
“Trump’s biggest issue is letting people know who he has endorsed. The statements [from his Save America PAC] don’t do all that much,” said a second Trump ally, adding that “people care a lot less when you’re no longer president.”
Brooks, however, said he’s undoubtedly seen the benefits of being backed by Trump.
“It is a Republican primary, and a President Trump endorsement is like gold and platinum put together,” he told CNN.
Yet Trump’s endorsement has not scared off other ambitious Republicans seeking higher office. Walker last week held a rally saying he’s continuing to run for Senate, publicly refuting what he said was Trump’s offer to drop out of the Senate race and run again for the House.
“I don’t look for places to draw points of contention,” added Walker. “But I am my own guide when it comes to doing what we feel like is best or is in our heart.”
The lines for North Carolina House seats haven’t been set, as the redistricting process has been tied up in court, creating uncertainty for any potential House candidate.
One outside adviser to Trump said the former President was “annoyed” by Walker’s refusal to exit the Senate primary but also understood that he was placed in a difficult spot.
“Everyone kind of gets it,” the Trump adviser said. “What’s the guy supposed to do?”