Donald Trump’s endorsement helped push J.D. Vance and Eric Schmitt into the Senate. Now they’re nearly ready to return the favor.
Vance has told allies over the last few months that he anticipates endorsing Trump in the Republican primary, according to two people briefed on the Ohio Republican's plans. And Schmitt, whom Trump technically endorsed when he backed “Eric” in the Missouri GOP primary last year, said on Monday that he’s supporting the former president.
“He’s very popular in Missouri,” Schmitt said of Trump in an interview. “He’s been somebody that’s gotten the support of Missourians by big margins a couple times. He has my support.”
The freshman duo's moves come after just two other upper-chamber Republicans, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), have backed Trump since the 2022 midterms. And though four Senate GOP endorsements is an early indicator that Trump is the frontrunner in the 2024 primary, it’s still a far cry from the show of support on the Hill that Trump enjoyed four years ago as an incumbent president.
But much has changed since then: two impeachments, the violent Capitol riot and a presidential campaign that's only inched along in the two-plus months after launching. Not to mention the intra-party ground Trump lost with primary endorsements of Republican Senate candidates who went on to lose races in Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania. What’s more, Trump has a legitimate potential primary rival in Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, on top of several other contenders eyeing a run.
Given that significantly altered landscape, Tuberville described the slow buildup of Trump's effort as intentional. He said he spoke to Trump recently, and that the former president told him “we're gonna do small ones early and kind of build our momentum, build our teams in each state."
“I'm gonna be disappointed in the summertime if we don't have more [endorsements]. I'll put it that way. Right now, it's no big concern,” Tuberville said.
Trump kicked off his campaign this weekend in New Hampshire and South Carolina, taking preemptive shots at DeSantis. Back on Capitol Hill on Monday, the foray got a mixed reception, particularly in the Senate. House Republicans have been far quicker to endorse Trump during his third bid for the White House.
Some Republicans, particularly those in senior positions, said there’s a lot of hope for a different candidate. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said “there seems to be a growing desire to get some new blood.”
“There will be alternatives this time around, it sounds like,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), who called DeSantis “very formidable. There may be others, too.”
A Trump spokesperson did not return a request for comment.And on Tuesday Vance confirmed to radio host Hugh Hewitt that he plans to endorse Trump in a forthcoming op-ed.
Trump’s backers and his skeptics sound alike in one respect: They say the campaign is very early and that many Capitol Hill Republicans are reluctant to make an endorsement before the field is settled. Fellow senators like Tim Scott (R-S.C.) may yet run, in addition to other top GOP names like DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Many senators are reluctant to make early enemies.
In presidential races, though, things accelerate quickly. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) announced his 2016 presidential campaign in March 2015, with Trump declaring in June — and winning almost no establishment support until he began thumping his rivals in the primaries.
“It’s up to them to figure that out for themselves … they’re all politicians,” said Graham. “Nobody endorsed him the last time he won.”
And some say they won’t weigh in, period. Sen. Katie Britt (R-Ala.), another first-term senator, said that being on an RNC advisory council precludes her from making an endorsement. Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who chairs the conference's campaign arm, said he would be neutral as well: “That’s a fair question, and I’m focused on the Senate. Politics is about addition, not subtraction.”
Other Republicans are watching to see if Trump’s early rumblings about running a more traditional campaign this time around will come to fruition.
“What I did like is, he said he’s talking about the future,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who is running for governor of his state in 2024, said of Trump. “If he sticks on the future and only refers to the past about how good his record was pre-Covid, he could put together a winning formula.”
Still, Braun’s ambivalence is telling. He was one of Trump’s strongest defenders during the former president's first impeachment trial, and other longtime allies like Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), and Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) are not weighing in on the primary yet.
Trump’s campaign has also been off to a chaotic start. Within weeks of his announcement, he dined with antisemites and suggested terminating the Constitution. Yet, despite those controversies and ongoing federal investigations, Republicans privately acknowledge there’s a real likelihood Trump could be their nominee again, especially if the field is crowded and he maintains his base of support.
Even senators who practice a different style of politics said they remained open to evaluating his bid for another term.
“I’m going to look at it. I’m going through the process everybody else is,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who described DeSantis as “pretty effective” but wants to see if his style of politics works nationally. “It’s just not something, in my relatively short time in politics, that I ever remember talking about two years out.”