Former President Donald Trump’s allies have been privately lobbying hard-right House members to throw their support behind his bid for the GOP 2024 presidential nomination and help inject some fresh momentum into his fledgling campaign, according to Republican sources.
But Trump has his work cut out for him.
In interviews with roughly two dozen members of the so-called MAGA wing, encompassing some Republicans who were among his staunchest allies during his four years in office, many told CNN they were not yet ready to commit to Trump. Some were keeping their options open as the field develops and others were privately worried that Trump would implode and hand President Joe Biden another four years in office.
And several seem more open to embracing one of Trump’s potential opponents, whether it’s Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former Vice President Mike Pence or even former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who won the support of one hard-right House Freedom Caucus member as she announced her bid for the nomination earlier this month.
“There’s a lot of good candidates and I want to take a look at” them, said Rep. Ken Buck, a Colorado Republican and House Freedom Caucus member who broke with Trump over certifying the 2020 election.
One overriding concern: Whether Trump could actually win in 2024 given that the GOP lost control of the House in 2018 during his tenure, then he lost in 2020 and witnessed the 2022 failure of Republicans to recapture the Senate majority after several Trump-backed candidates collapsed in the general election.
“Yeah, that’s a concern,” said Rep. Tim Burchett, a conservative Tennessee Republican who is neutral in the race when asked about Trump’s performance in the last three cycles. “A lot of times, our leaders, maybe their morals aren’t where we need them to be, but the leadership skills and putting people in place are, so that’s kind of what everybody’s concerned about.”
The apprehension over Trump inside the Freedom Caucus – a group that evolved from a conservative policy-centered crew to a Trump fan club over the years – is emblematic of the broader reservations inside the GOP over Trump’s electability. And it underscores the larger challenge that the former president faces to win back his coalition as many GOP officials – and voters – are eager to see a fresh face despite their support of his actions in office.
And while there’s still plenty of love and respect for Trump on the far right, behind the scenes, there’s particular excitement over DeSantis, a founding member of the Freedom Caucus. DeSantis privately met with members of the group earlier this month and held a fundraiser in West Palm Beach, Florida – Trump’s turf – over the weekend, where several GOP lawmakers were in attendance.
“It’s no secret that I was in West Palm this past weekend. I’m pretty impressed with the governor,” conservative Rep. Chip Roy, a Texas Republican, told CNN. “I’m going to do what I think is right, based on what is appropriate for the 750,000 people that I represent. That’s who I owe my allegiance to – not any individual, certainly not any politician.”
Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida, a member of the Freedom Caucus, had praise for both DeSantis and Trump but said he would wait to see the field set before taking a position on the candidates.
“We don’t do lockstep politics on our side of the aisle,” Donalds said. “So everybody’s gonna make a decision of who they want to support early.”
But if DeSantis indeed runs for president, it could benefit Donalds, who told CNN he’d be interested in running for governor of the Sunshine State.
“Yeah,” Donalds said when asked if he’s open to running for governor.
As Trump eagerly watches to see who endorses him, members of the Freedom Caucus trekked down to Florida over the February congressional recess for a conservative policy conference, where they met with DeSantis.
The governor, who just won a second term last fall, addressed the Freedom Caucus during the conference, and afterward, a number of GOP lawmakers posed for pictures with DeSantis and posted them to social media with glowing captions, raising some eyebrows in GOP circles.
“It was great for the Freedom Caucus to get to meet him and hear about all the good work he’s doing in Florida, that we would love to replicate,” said Rep. Ben Cline of Virginia, a member of the Freedom Caucus. “We’re blessed with a deep bench. And while Trump is the favorite, I’m watching the field develop.”
Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who credited Trump with helping him win the gavel, has yet to weigh in on the burgeoning presidential primary field. And some GOP lawmakers, including Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, the head of the Freedom Caucus and staunch Trump defender during his time in the White House, refused to answer any questions about the presidential primary.
“I’ve got way too many things to worry about, be concerned about, before I get into that,” Perry told CNN.
Others were similarly mum.
“That’s way above my paygrade,” said Rep. Dan Bishop, a conservative from North Carolina, when asked about his favorite in the presidential race. “I’m just an obscure backbencher.”
And at least one prominent Trump backer – Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina, who once called for using martial law to keep Trump in office – has already thrown his weight behind Haley, the only other major Republican candidate to officially jump into the race so far.
“My feelings, at the end of the day, is we have to win the White House in ’24 to stop the insanity that’s playing out before our very eyes,” Norman told CNN. “Nikki has the skills, personal magnetism, fighting spirit, bold decisive, street sense that will excite young, old, independents to go to the polls, and this will be evident over the next 8 to 10 months.”
Asked whether he’s worried about possible blowback from Trump, Norman said he had a pleasant phone call with a “benevolent” Trump about his endorsement – and made clear his decision to back Haley was not a personal slight against the former president.
But Norman said he hopes other conservative House Republicans will back candidates besides Trump.
“I hope so, it’s called democracy,” Norman said. “It’s called the political process. When is it bad to get behind a candidate that you believe in?”
Others are torn.
“There’s a lot of people excited about DeSantis. … And a lot of us have been friends with him for a while, before he even became governor,” one Freedom Caucus member told CNN, who predicted the governor would rack up some congressional endorsements once he officially gets in the race. “But we also like Donald Trump. So for a lot of us, it’s especially tough.”
To be sure, Trump has his fair share of loyal allies on Capitol Hill. A number of Republicans have already pledged their support to Trump, including Reps. Elise Stefanik of New York, Jim Jordan of Ohio and Lauren Boebert of Colorado. And more are expected to follow suit, especially since Trump has built a lot of goodwill on Capitol Hill through playing in primaries.
“I’m with Trump out of the gate. I like Ron and several of the other guys too, but I’m with Trump out of the gate,” said Rep. Clay Higgins of Louisiana.
“I endorsed him day one. I’m all in,” added Rep. Ronny Jackson of Texas, a former White House doctor who worked with Trump.
Still, the number of congressional endorsements is something that has been on the former president’s mind. People involved with Trump’s political operation have been whipping lawmakers on Capitol Hill to publicly back Trump, with a particular focus on the Florida members, a senior GOP source told CNN.
“Trump is very much paying attention to who endorses him,” the source said. “Because it matters right now.”
The House Freedom Caucus showed serious signs of splintering earlier this year during the drawn out battle over speaker, with around half the group initially refusing to back McCarthy for the gavel, even though he had Trump’s support.
In the end, five House Republicans – including Rep. Matt Rosendale, who is considering running for Senate in Montana – voted “present,” allowing McCarthy to clinch the speakership. But not before a chaotic episode on the floor, where Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia tried to get Rosendale to talk to Trump on her cell phone.
Rosendale refused – but insisted it’s because he didn’t want to break the rules, not because he didn’t want to speak to Trump, who endorsed Rosendale in the past.
“There’s rules that prohibit using the phone on the floor,” he told CNN.
Asked whether he’d back Trump’s presidential bid, Rosendale said: “I don’t do endorsements – not through primaries.”
CNN’s Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.