Tue. Sep 27th, 2022
Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) first heard that he had been endorsed by former President Trump when he looked at his phone.

“I got a text message: ‘You’ve been endorsed,’” Donalds told The Hill. 

The first-term lawmaker was surprised, but not shocked. He has been a supporter of Trump and has a good relationship with him. 

Republican candidates in contested primaries this year have lobbied hard for Trump’s backing, and most who get his blessing have gone on to win the party’s nomination.

But Trump’s endorsements of incumbents have often come without members seeking them, a key indication that he is running up his primary endorsement success rate by putting his stamp of approval on members almost certain to win their races.

Trump touts the success of his endorsement record in Republican primaries, his record serving as a measure of his influence on the party. He recently flaunted his “Perfect Records in Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, and Missouri.”

Trump has been a kingmaker in a number of key primary races, with bold endorsements in Senate primaries in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and with some revenge challengers to House Republicans who voted to impeach him after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on Capitol Hill.

“Trump used his own metrics to determine who he supports. It’s been pretty successful,” said Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.). “The numbers don’t lie.”

Yet in keeping with his pattern as president, Trump regularly inflates his numbers. He bragged on Truth Social after Tennessee’s primary that he had a “Perfect Record of Endorsements, 8-0.” Left unsaid was that all were incumbents, of which six ran unopposed, and the other two did not have serious challengers.

Conversations with more than a dozen House Republican members who spoke to The Hill suggested that it is normal for Trump to bestow an endorsement without a member reaching out first.

“I did not seek it,” Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.) said of getting a Trump endorsement ahead of his primary. “I just was going about my business, you know, campaigning and representing my district. But he reached out, and — through one of his political people — and offered an endorsement.”

After notification that Trump wanted to endorse them, the former president often calls the member and has a brief chat before the official “Save America” endorsement release, several House GOP members said.

Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.) said that he did not seek endorsements because he was running in an uncontested primary but was happy to accept one from Trump.

“He gave the greatest Trump line ever, by the way,” Armstrong said, when he called the former president back after missing his initial pre-endorsement announcement call. “Like, ‘I’m sorry, Mr. President, I missed your call.’ He says, ‘Don’t worry. The call is temporary, that voicemail’s forever.’”

Norman and Reps. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) and Michael Cloud (R-Texas) all similarly said that Trump had reached out to them.

House GOP leadership has been involved in facilitating some of the endorsements.

Rep. Randy Feenstra (R-Iowa) said that someone in House GOP leadership gave him a “heads up” that the endorsement from Trump would be coming.

And some incumbent GOP members, meanwhile, have reached out to Trump this year. 

Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.) said he sought an endorsement from Trump through House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and his political team. Guthrie had a phone chat with Trump before his endorsement was released about a week before the primary, which he then won by 60 points.

Now out of office and looking to retain a hold on the party, Trump has made more formal endorsements in primary races than ever before.

By the end of August 2020, Trump had endorsed 111 candidates in House, Senate, and governor’s races, with 109 of those advancing to the general election, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis at the time.

He is running well ahead of that number in primaries this cycle, with 20 gubernatorial endorsements, 21 Senate endorsements, and 156 House endorsements so far, an analysis by The Hill found — not counting those who dropped out before the primary election, who Trump un-endorsed, or his dual “ERIC” endorsement in the Missouri GOP Senate primary, where state Attorney General Eric Schmitt defeated former Gov. Eric Greitens.

Some of Trump’s endorsements were a clear attempt to clear the field in key races, such as when he urged “JUST ONE CANDIDATE” to run against Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.). But most of those were incumbent members who were likely to win renomination regardless of a Trump endorsement.

Trump has backed 134 incumbent House members, accounting for more than half the GOP conference. And 66 candidates that Trump endorsed in House races ran or are running in uncontested primaries, or in a nonpartisan primary without any other Republican candidates on the ballot.

Trump’s team asserted that his endorsement helps Republicans have larger victories.

“The power of President Trump’s endorsement hasn’t just resulted in massive wins for Republicans across the nation, it also has meant bigger margins of victory and an ever-growing movement for the future,” Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich said in a statement. “Every candidate who earns the endorsement of President Trump benefits tremendously and has been gracious in their appreciation for his support.”

Trump’s political team did not respond to requests to comment on his endorsement strategy.

A couple of the endorsements indicate a willingness to bury old hatchets.

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) received Trump’s endorsement a week before his primary. That came more than two years after a testy phone call between the two men.

“The last conversation we had was on my cell phone in the Speaker’s Lobby on March 27th of 2020. He was upset,” Massie said.

Massie tried to force a roll call vote on the CARES Act coronavirus stimulus bill, sending lawmakers scrambling to get back to Washington to avoid a delay in passing the legislation. The move enraged Trump, who called for Massie to be thrown out of the Republican Party.

But in his statement endorsing Massie, Trump called him “a first-rate Defender of the Constitution.”

Massie is one of 36 incumbent Republicans, 26 in the House and 10 in the Senate, endorsed by Trump who did not vote to object to certification of electoral votes from Arizona or Pennsylvania on Jan. 6.

Trump has endorsed just one incumbent member who voted in favor of creating a bipartisan, bicameral commission on the Jan. 6 Capitol attack: Rep. Carlos Gimenez (R-Fla.). 

Gimenez, who said he sought Trump’s endorsement, talked with the former president about his vote for the commission.

“I explained to him why I voted for the first one and not the second one. The second one I consider to be illegitimate,” Gimenez said. “So, we had a good conversation about that.”

Challengers to incumbent House Republicans have attacked those who voted in favor of the commission in primaries this year. Republicans blocked the measure in the Senate, prompting creation of the House select committee investigating Jan. 6. Reps. Cheney and Adam Kinzinger (Ill.) were the only Republicans to vote for the ultimate panel’s creation.

The biggest line in the sand for Trump appears to be voting to impeach. He stayed out of some races where votes for the Jan. 6 commission became a line of attack, such as the cases of Reps. Dusty Johnson (S.D.), Michael Guest (Texas), and Van Taylor (R-Texas), who was forced into a runoff and ended his campaign after the primary over an affair scandal.

Many Republican candidates hoping to win Trump’s endorsement flocked to Mar-a-Lago ahead of the primary season, hosting events or hoping to get some face time with the former president. Nevada gubernatorial candidate Michele Fiore even purchased ads early this year on Fox News in Palm Beach, Fla., hoping that the former president was watching. She was unsuccessful, with Trump later endorsing Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo.

But the best indicator of whether a candidate would win a Trump endorsement was usually if he or she looked likely to win.

More than 96 percent of Trump-endorsed House candidates who have had primaries so far won their primaries, not counting those who dropped out before the election.

Trump un-endorsed Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) in the GOP Senate primary and then endorsed Katie Britt, who had overtaken him in the polls. He made an early endorsement last September for Michigan state Rep. Steve Carra against pro-impeachment Rep. Fred Upton, but redistricting scrambled the map and put Upton up against Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.), to whom Trump then switched his endorsement. Upton later said he would not run for reelection.

A large number of Trump’s endorsements were announced in the days before primary elections, with some of those candidates not worried about losing.

But that hasn’t put a damper on incumbent members’ thrill of getting the endorsement.

“Anytime you have an endorsement from a President of the United States, that’s really cool,” said Donalds.

Paige Kupas, Stephen Neukam and Zach Wendling contributed research.

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