Could the GOP field narrow before primary voters go to the polls? Cornyn replied: “I can dream, can’t I?”
contrast, the contingent of Capitol Hill Trump backers like what they see so far — the former president going after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as a crowded field splits the anti-Trump vote.
While congressional endorsements don’t anoint primary winners, the views of lawmakers on their parties’ presidential contenders can serve as a barometer of the mood inside the party, and especially of the GOP establishment. In the 2020 Democratic primary, the coalescing support of Black lawmakers and a handful of Senate allies proved essential for Biden.
Ten GOP senators officially endorsed Trump, with several others leaning that way and several dozen House members also on board. DeSantis has no Senate endorsements and just a handful of House Republicans backing him. And as Trump and DeSantis savage each other over covid and entitlements, a number of congressional Republicans pine for another outcome: That the two-man clash might create an opening for another candidate.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said that the candidate onrush shows Republicans think “these top two guys may be paper tigers.” He backs Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), an optimist straight out of the pre-Trump GOP playbook.
Iowa GOP Rep. Zach Nunn, who’s neutral in the primary, suggested that his early-state voters might tune out the Trump-DeSantis showdown in favor of somebody else.
“We’ll see if the two titans punching each other fires up the base, or if six months from now people are tired of both and ready for a third way,” Nunn said.
“When you talk to Iowans, shit-talking other candidates will not get you success,” he added. Alluding to his state’s farmer-heavy electorate, Nunn said: “We don’t necessarily pick the winner, but we’re pretty good at smelling bullshit.”
The current field beyond Trump and DeSantis includes Scott, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder.
The numbers haven’t yet reached the chaos of the 2016 primary, when Trump dispatched more than a dozen rivals. But it’s getting close. Which explains why Trump’s backers argue that every new candidate only makes his path to victory that much easier.
“There’s a core constituency that will only vote for the [former] president,” said Rep. Carlos Gimenez (R-Fla.), a Trump backer. “As you have more, they start to break up those percentages amongst themselves, that core will always stay with the [former] president.”
The former president was feeling good enough about his standing to skip Sen. Joni Ernst’s (R-Iowa) “Roast and Ride” event over the weekend. Some Iowa lawmakers took notice.
Nunn said in response that “You don’t win new folks by not showing up.” Ernst, who is neutral, noted that there was positive energy at the Trump-less event.
For some Republicans who haven’t yet endorsed, the Trump-DeSantis tussling amounts to a potential strategic error because it focuses the primary on red-meat, base-pleasing topics — from the pandemic to purported “woke” culture. Meanwhile, the sort of kitchen-table issues that tend to dominate general elections are getting more focus from the underdogs.
Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), a centrist from a battleground district, is one of those warning candidates need to have a broader appeal in the primary.
“You run the risk of hurting yourself in a general election if you keep it that narrow. Because general election voters are watching,” she said.
Mace hasn’t yet endorsed, with both Scott and Haley hailing from her early-voting state, though she has spoken favorably about having a woman on the ticket.
Another GOP lawmaker who’s not yet backed his home-state contender, Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.), similarly praised Burgum as not to be underestimated.
Perhaps more importantly, Armstrong also conceded that a big primary field may hurt the GOP’s chances of defeating Biden.
“The longer the field stays huge, the more money that’s being invested in those races is not being invested into winning in November,” Armstrong said.
Of course, DeSantis’ backers insist that this time will end differently — that their candidate will learn from the experiences of Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) during the 2016 GOP primary, when both struggled with how to handle Trump.
“People have to be challenged. And obviously DeSantis is challenging him,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who hasn’t yet endorsed.
Though Trump’s “the obvious front-runner,” she added, “I think [DeSantis is using] a technique to draw him out.”
Pro-DeSantis Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) said he’s happy to have Trump duke it out with DeSantis, predicting that the former president would falter the more he reminds voters of his personality.
“I wish Trump were on Twitter. He’s in an echo chamber right now. And people don’t know how far he’s spun out from where he was,” Massie said in an interview on Tuesday.
“The more visibility that we can help Trump get — when he attacks [his former White House press secretary] Kayleigh McEnany, for instance — the better,” Massie added.
Trump eventually claimed the nomination in 2016 as he won over the vast majority of GOP elected officials during his presidency — including many of those who now want him out of the picture. That includes Cornyn, who identified what he sees as a silver lining.
“Chris Christie’s in. And I think he’s focused like a laser on the former president,” Cornyn said. The former New Jersey governor, he added, “doesn’t fight by the Marquess of Queensbury rules.”