Donald Trump is gaining strength in 2024 primary polls. The same can’t exactly be said about his standing among Capitol Hill conservatives.
Just ask James Lankford, the Oklahoma Republican who openly admits that the former president’s third bid for the White House is evenly cleaving the party in his blood-red state.
“About half of the Republicans I talk to want Trump to be able to get the nomination. And half of them say, ‘I want somebody besides Trump’,” the Sooner State senator said in an interview.
“They’re conservative,” Lankford added of his constituents, “but they’re dealing with personality there as well and are trying to figure out: Where do we go as a nation?”
Lankford is staying neutral in his state, where Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) bested Trump in the 2016 primary. And he’s got plenty of company. Even as the GOP’s right flank earns sway equal to the tea party era, most conservatives aren’t inserting themselves into the brewing clash between Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, an all-but-certain presidential contender bred by the pro-Trump House Freedom Caucus.
Interviews with more than 40 congressional Republicans — including 32 Freedom Caucus members — show a surprising number of Trump’s once-ardent supporters going quiet about whether they back him, despite new polling that shows him widening his primary lead. The small share of conservatives willing to endorse Trump right now suggests that the former president’s power base in the Hill GOP is at a nadir, even as DeSantis and other rivals have yet to ramp up their outreach.
And some congressional conservatives are getting unexpected reactions to their alternative picks.
Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), for instance, was one of the 20 doubters who initially blocked Kevin McCarthy from ascending to the speakership even as Trump supported the California Republican through 15 arduous ballots.
Then Norman surprised colleagues last month by backing former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley over Trump. And he, too, was in for a surprise when he informed Trump of his decision.
The former president, who is well known for grudge-holding, “was nice” about Norman’s decision, he recalled in an interview. “‘Do what you have to do. You got a great family.’ And that’s what he said,” Norman recounted. He hasn’t heard from Trump since.
Trump has received a quintet of Senate endorsements, with potentially more to come, and is clearly looking to see if his old coalition of allies is willing to rally around him again. He unveiled endorsements from 11 House members in Texas this past weekend — and warned that those on the fence were encouraged not to come to his rally.
Yet overall, the show of support for Trump is far from decisive. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) is DeSantis’ only current backer — not much of a surprise, since DeSantis isn’t running yet — but few Hill conservatives are pushing the Florida governor to stay out of the race.
“I do want DeSantis to run,” said Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), who plans to stay “neutral” in the event her colleague, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), jumps in. “Even if DeSantis and Trump are very close philosophically, there’s definitely a style difference there. And style is important.”
The reasons for the cool reception to Trump are myriad: He left office two weeks after a violent insurrection by his backers, and his meddling in Republican primaries backfired to help Democrats keep the Senate last year. He associates with white nationalists and has seemingly never-ending legal woes. For many Republicans, the need to win after a streak of losses supersedes old loyalties.
The House Freedom Caucus is composed of roughly 35 lawmakers, and about one-third of those members interviewed for this story are publicly supporting Trump again. That camp includes the group’s former chair, Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).
Fourteen Freedom Caucus members wouldn’t say where they stand on the primary, either stating they’re undecided as the race takes shape or declining to weigh in outright. The Trump-aligned group’s current leader, Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), played a central role helping Trump challenge his 2020 loss.
But the Pennsylvanian demurred when asked whom he would back in 2024: “We got a ways to go … I really am just focused on my work” in the House.
Then there’s Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.), a Freedom Caucus member caught on camera waving off Greene as she sought to put him on the phone with Trump during the speakership balloting. Rosendale has no plans to make a presidential endorsement and he sidestepped concerns that a rift with Trump could hurt his chances in the state primary should he decide to challenge Democratic Sen. Jon Tester.
“We’re not supposed to use telephones on the House floor. That’s all I’ve got to say about that,” he said. (When he shrugged off the chance to talk to Trump in January, however, there were no rules governing the House floor.)
Fractures within the Freedom Caucus clearly emerged during the Trump administration, as the majority of the group shifted from libertarian ideology to a more MAGA-centric outlook. Now, some want to return to their former roots — which may well entail a different approach to 2024. One Freedom Caucus member, granted anonymity to speak candidly, described Trump as an unlikely pick.
In addition, the field that’s shaping up is especially awkward in early primary states. Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) cited his ties to Haley and Scott in declining to answer. But Duncan also served in Congress with Mike Pompeo, Kristi Noem, DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence. And he knows Trump, as all Republicans do.
“My relationships with all those people really are more important to me than endorsing — early on — one of them. That could jeopardize my relationships,” Duncan said.
Rep. Russ Fulcher (R-Idaho) declined to address whom he’d support, instead contending it is a “good problem” to have multiple choices. Asked if he feared Trump attacking him if he ultimately backs someone else for president, he shrugged it off.
“He might, because that’s just the way he is,” said the Freedom Caucus member. “But, if he wins, then we all hug again and keep on going.”
Across the Capitol, five out of 49 Republican senators are openly endorsing Trump: Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, Eric Schmitt of Missouri, J.D. Vance of Ohio, and Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma. Those on the sidelines at the moment range from Cruz, Trump’s 2016 rival turned ally, to Sen. Ted Budd (R-N.C.), whom Trump pushed to victory in last year’s Senate primary.
Budd at least sounded warm to Trump’s candidacy, expressing “tremendous gratitude for how he helped” in the midterms. Cruz would only say he foresees “a full and vigorous presidential primary, and I am confident it won’t be boring.”
Some on-the-fence Republicans might be more willing to endorse Trump if he went back to talking about the economy. Take Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who’s a party barometer of sorts: A gubernatorial candidate and member of the conservative bloc that opposed Mitch McConnell for GOP leader. He also served as Trump’s biggest defender during his 2020 impeachment trial.
”If [Trump] would focus on what was going on pre-Covid, and not try to get the toothpaste back in the tube — which is not going to happen — I think he’s got a strong argument to make,” Braun said.