Former President Donald Trump is leaning on a network of personal and political relationships to rack up broad congressional support for his 2024 White House bid and undercut his chief Republican rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, before the governor’s campaign formally gets off the ground.
The depth and influence of Trump’s retail politicking abilities have become increasingly apparent over the past several days and weeks as an ever-growing list of congressional Republicans has lined up behind the former president’s comeback campaign. He’s already notched the support of at least half of Florida’s Republican House delegation, including a handful of members whom DeSantis’s team had sought to win over.
The spate of endorsements for Trump amounted to a disappointing series of defections for DeSantis, who is expected to announce a 2024 presidential bid in May or June after the Florida state legislature wraps up its annual session. So far, three members of Congress — including only one from Florida — have backed his presidential ambitions.
In some cases, the endorsements came as a direct result of lobbying efforts by Trump and his team. Others said that they never received any outreach from the former president or his political operation but noted that Trump had maintained an open line of communication with them, while they had only begun to hear from DeSantis’s team recently.
“It was actually the DeSantis people that started all of a sudden, after five years, kind of reaching out to me,” said Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.), who endorsed Trump on Monday. “Not him, but his people.”
In Steube’s case, he recounted this week, Trump made a point to call him personally and check in after the congressman was admitted to the hospital after falling off a ladder at his home earlier this year. Since he endorsed Trump, Steube said, he hasn’t “heard from anyone in DeSantis’s camp.”
A spokesperson for DeSantis’s campaign did not respond to The Hill’s request for comment for this story.
As president, Trump would invite members of Congress to fly with him aboard Air Force One when traveling to their states or districts. When Trump endorsed a lawmaker for office over the past few years, he would frequently try to call or meet with them or host them for a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago. If something happened in a member’s personal life, Trump would often reach out.
Last week, when Trump attended a Republican National Committee (RNC) retreat in Nashville, he sat for three hours with Tennessee’s two GOP senators and four members of Congress from the state, most of whom the former president had either helped elect or spoken with before.
The former president on Thursday hosted 10 members of the Florida delegation at his Mar-a-Lago estate for dinner.
“Personal touch is everything for him,” a Trump campaign aide said.
In addition to Steube, Florida Reps. John Rutherford and Brian Mast endorsed Trump just ahead of DeSantis’s visit to Washington, D.C., this week. Rep. Lance Gooden (R-Texas) met with the governor, then promptly issued a statement backing Trump for 2024. And Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.) who represents DeSantis’s old congressional district, joined his colleagues on Thursday in endorsing the former president.
Trump’s long-standing and well-managed personal relationships stand in contrast with what some lawmakers have said about DeSantis who spoke with members of Congress at a conservative think tank this week in the nation’s capital. And it’s a difference Trump’s team is happy to exploit.
“President Trump and I, you know, we talk. We really just talk more about the country and what’s going on,” said Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), who introduced DeSantis at his victory party on election night in November but endorsed Trump earlier this month. “I really haven’t had too many conversations with Gov. DeSantis, but at the end of the day it’s about who can hit the ground running.”
Donalds said neither Trump nor DeSantis reached out to ask for his support, but said his decision to back the former president was due in part to where “a lot of my voters are back home and voters around the country.” With Trump, he added, members “know what they’re going to get.”
Trump’s dominance in the nascent 2024 Republican primary comes after his campaign got off to a bumpy start late last year, leading some to begin writing his political obituary. But despite concerns among some in the party that he won’t be able to win in a general election, polling suggests the former president remains the clear favorite to win the party’s nomination.
A Wall Street Journal poll published Friday showed Trump with 51 percent support among likely GOP primary voters, up 13 points on DeSantis, his next closest competition.
“The support for President Trump has been very, very strong among Republicans,” said Garrett Ventry, a GOP consultant who advises House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.). “The polling proves that. And the voters that these people represent, the president is very popular with them.”
The slew of endorsements this week not only coincided with DeSantis’s D.C. visit, but also preceded Trump’s first public campaign event in Florida since he announced his 2024 bid in November when he speaks at the Lee County GOP Dinner on Friday.
The governor’s trip to D.C. for an event that was billed as a “meet and greet and policy discussion” with lawmakers, drew several dozen members of Congress. That same day, Rep. Laurel Lee (R-Fla.), DeSantis’s former secretary of state, endorsed the governor’s presidential ambitions, citing his “conservative principles, proven track record, and his commitment to our country.”
But Trump rolled out a handful of new endorsements of his own. And in a development that came as a surprise to Trump and his team, Gooden issued a statement after attending the DeSantis event saying that while he had a “positive meeting” with the Florida governor, he had decided to endorse Trump.
A Trump aide noted that several of the endorsements came from lawmakers in delegate-rich Florida, and others came from Super Tuesday primary states like Tennessee and Texas. The backing of members of Congress can boost fundraising efforts, and they help bolster the narrative that Trump is the candidate to beat.
One Republican operative who is not aligned with Trump or DeSantis downplayed the significance of the deluge of congressional support for the former president, acknowledging it may be important in shaping a narrative inside the Beltway but is unlikely to sway many voters nearly a year ahead of the first primaries.
Trump famously had little support from Republican lawmakers when he first sought the White House in 2016 but went on to win the GOP nomination anyway.
DeSantis has also scored a handful of congressional endorsements of his own from the likes of Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and Lee.
Massie, who served in the House with DeSantis for about six years, said that even after DeSantis left Congress, the two remained friends and talked “about every six months” once he became governor. Massie said that DeSantis never asked for his endorsement, but that he decided to announce his support early to help encourage DeSantis to run.
While Massie said that some Republican lawmakers who have endorsed Trump in recent weeks were “sincere” in their support, he suggested that others did so out of concern that the former president could threaten to back primary challenges to them.
“I think a lot of them are sincere but there may be some who are worried about a primary challenger,” Massie told The Hill in an interview on Friday. “And I think in a primary, Donald Trump has more ability to move the needle with the 30 percent of the Republican Party that are solidly behind him.”
Massie said that DeSantis still has “plenty of time” to get into the 2024 race, adding that the typical challenges of running a presidential campaign — fundraising, organizing and the like — don’t apply to the Florida governor. He also said that there are “more endorsements in the pipeline.”
Roy, who along with Massie helped arrange DeSantis’s recent appearance in D.C., explained his endorsement late last month as born out of his experience working with the governor while DeSantis was a member of Congress, as well as his desire to see a younger generation of leadership step up.
“I’ve known the governor. I was Ted’s chief when he was a freshman in Congress. We were starting the Freedom Caucus, we were meeting in basements,” said Roy, who served as chief of staff to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) before he was elected to Congress in 2018. “You get to know these guys and I’ve known the governor for a long time.
“It’d be nice to have somebody who’s not a baby boomer,” he added. “I think it’s time for a new generation. He can serve for eight years.”
A number of former Trump officials have also defected to back DeSantis’s presidential ambitions, including former Trump campaign aides Erin Perrine and Matt Wolking, both of whom now work for the pro-DeSantis Never Back Down super PAC.
DeSantis on Friday spoke at a Heritage Foundation event near Washington, where he received a standing ovation from attendees as he outlined his record and gave a nod to his general election appeal.
“We’ve been able to operate an administration that does not get consumed in petty controversy or drama or palace intrigue. We basically execute the mission day after day after day,” DeSantis told the crowd.
Emily Brooks and Mychael Schnell contributed.