During Donald Trump’s first presidential campaign in 2016, it took him half a year to get his first endorsement from a federally elected official. In his second presidential campaign as an incumbent, he faced no real primary challenge, and the Republican Party almost completely consolidated around him.
So far, his third presidential campaign is much more like his first than his second.
On Capitol Hill, the day after Trump announced his presidential campaign in an uninspired speech from the ballroom of his Florida private club, members of his party usually didn’t rush to rally around him. His role in the GOP’s underperformance in the meantime and his loss in 2020 were still fresh in the minds of many. Instead, Trump has a motley hodgepodge of approvals that is disappointing compared to his status as a former president whose support often proved crucial among Republicans seeking congressional seats in the 2022 primary.
One of Trump’s first endorsers in 2016, Senator Kevin Cramer (R-ND), was noncommittal. “I hope a lot of other people come in, we have choices and they’re all fighting it out,” he told cafemadrid. “As I have often said, he has no right to the job. None of us are entitled to these jobs. We have to earn them every time. In his case I expect it to be hard fought.”
Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), who finished second to Trump in the highly contested 2016 primary before eventually becoming an ally of the former president, also evaded the question. Cruz, who is himself considered a potential 2024 presidential candidate, told cafemadrid: “I think we’ve accomplished a lot with Donald Trump as president and if he’s the nominee I will enthusiastically support him.”
Even Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a longtime Trump booster, hailed the former president as qualified on Twitter Tuesdaysaying, “If President Trump continues this tone and delivers this message consistently, he will be hard to beat.”
The only senator to explicitly support Trump was Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), who told cafemadrid on Wednesday, “I support him 100 percent.”
Trump’s old critics have not changed their tune. Mitt Romney, the last GOP presidential candidate before Trump and the only elected Republican to vote twice to remove the former president from office, thinks it’s time for a change. He told reporters that Republicans “need a leader from our party who is younger, has a clear vision for the future and can get our country back on track and that President Trump has lost three in a row. And if we want to start winning, we need a new leader.” Romney did not explicitly offer Trump alternatives, telling reporters “there are about 12 people I can think of who could be potential leaders of our party and presidential candidates.”
Trump has always been more popular in the House than in the Senate. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), whose relationship with Trump was never intimate and is now nonexistent, leads Senate Republicans, and the chamber has always had a significant number of prominent Trump skeptics. In contrast, the House has had a swarm of populist rightists who have gathered to take the mantle of the former president, and his current leader, Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), is committed to maintaining a good relationship with Trump.
But McCarthy has evaded whether he supports Trump and instead the former president is left with a hodgepodge of support in the House. This also applies to diehards like Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene as well as more established Republicans such as Tony Gonzalesrepresenting a border district in Texas, and Wesley Hunt, an elected congressman from Houston. The most prominent House Republican to support Trump’s presidential campaign to date is Elise Stefanik (R-NY), the chair of the Republican Conference, who has become a staunch Trump loyalist in recent years.
As a result, Trump is in an unusual position. Taken on its own, the number of endorsements he’s accumulated over a year before the first nomination contest is impressive. However, for a former president who essentially won the Republican nomination by acclamation in 2020, it’s pretty lackluster. Many leaders in his party are pining for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and numerous other politicians are at least paving the way for a bid. After all, history is against Trump. No defeated president has come back to win re-election since Grover Cleveland (who, unlike Trump, won the popular vote every time he was on the ballot).
Perhaps the best analogy is with Trump in that tenuous moment in the late winter of 2016, when he was starting to look like the favorite in the Republican presidential primary but was still politically vulnerable. Enough support has consolidated around him to show that he is a serious contender for the Republican nomination, if not the outright front-runner.
But enough key people in the party are hesitant to make it clear that there are deep reservations about nominating a politician who not only lost the last presidential election, but also helped instigate an armed attack on the Capitol to overthrow it .
In 2016, by the time the reality that Trump might actually win hit the GOP, it was too late for the opposition to Trump to consolidate. Within a few weeks, as the primaries followed the primary, he won enough delegates at the Republican National Convention to ensure that his opponents dropped out. This time, Trump not only announced before the start of the 2024 election, but while the 2022 election is still underway.
The messages of support Trump has received over the past two days represent a floor. Most elected Republicans are still on the sidelines with nothing but time to choose a candidate — Trump or someone else — in the 2024 primary.