Senate Republicans are staring down a now-or-never situation over whether to endorse former President Trump.
With the New Hampshire primary fast approaching, those who have held off have a shrinking window to make their endorsement count — and get into Trump’s good graces — before the former president potentially runs away with the GOP nod for good.
“As the primary unfolds, the political upside of endorsing the president goes down,” said Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), an early Trump endorser. “After Iowa, he’s, in my view, effectively the presumptive nominee. I think it would have been better before Iowa, certainly better before New Hampshire, but if you wait until the convention floor to endorse the guy then what does it actually say about your convictions?”
“I think it’s better to do it sooner rather than later,” Vance added.
The former president notched a massive win in Iowa on Monday, clearing 50 percent and handily defeating Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) in the process.
That means that many Senate Republicans see New Hampshire, where the race is closer but where Trump still leads in the polls, as their last chance to make a meaningful endorsement of Trump’s bid.
Top Stories from The Hill
They are also mindful that Trump has a history of turning his ire — and that of his supporters — against those he sees as disloyal.
Since early December, 12 Senate Republicans have thrown their weight behind Trump’s third bid for the White House, including several who did so only days before the Iowa caucuses. In total, 26 Senate GOP members have gotten on board, giving the ex-president more than half of the conference as he heads into New Hampshire.
Perhaps most notably, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) threw his support behind Trump during a Friday rally in New Hampshire.
The former presidential candidate had kept out of the spotlight since ending his campaign in mid-November, but both Trump and Haley had been pushing him to back their campaigns, especially ahead of the first-in-the-nation primary contest.
One source familiar with the situation said Trump wanted the endorsement to help him put the primary fight to bed, while Haley is fighting for her political life ahead of Tuesday.
The Hill/DDHQ polling average shows Trump leading Haley by about 10 points in New Hampshire.
While pressure from Trump’s team has not directly been heavy-handed, sources say, the ex-president had reportedly griped privately about the lack of support from other senators, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
The Texas conservative’s endorsement came on Tuesday in the aftermath of the Iowa results, with Cruz telling The Hill that the 30-point drubbing of DeSantis turned the tide for him.
“I said from the beginning I wanted to let the voters decide. The results in Iowa were compelling. It was a dominating performance,” Cruz said. “I know the Iowa caucus exceedingly well. I have enormous respect for the men and women of Iowa and they take their job very, very seriously.”
“Given that result, I think the race is effectively over,” he added.
FILE – Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks to the media during a press conference on the border, Sept. 27, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Democrats hoping to hold their slim Senate majority after November 2024 are looking for upsets in two unlikely places, Texas and Florida, to help neutralize potential setbacks elsewhere. Rep. Colin Allred, D-Texas, will have to overcome Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-Texas, before he can take on Cruz. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib, File)
Among those trying to boost Trump’s support in the chamber has been Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the first member of GOP leadership to support his campaign.
A source familiar with the effort said that Daines has been quietly lobbying his colleagues for the past month to help Trump’s team accumulate Senate endorsements.
“Every senator has to come to his or her own conclusion and I’ve always been respectful of my colleagues no matter where they land. But I’m encouraging them to get behind the president because he’s going to be the nominee and the sooner that we unify the better off we’ll be for November of ‘24,” Daines told The Hill. “Politics is about addition, not subtraction.”
With Iowa out of the way, Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) are both now free from their pre-caucus vows of neutrality to weigh in on the race. Ernst is considered the most likely outstanding member of GOP leadership to back the former president, but told The Hill that she is keeping her powder dry at this point.
“I am going to do whatever it takes to get [President Biden] out of the White House. Let’s put it like that,” Ernst said.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) addresses reporters after the weekly policy luncheon on Tuesday, December 12, 2023. (Greg Nash)
Grassley, 90, was released from the hospital on Thursday after being admitted with an infection earlier in the week.
Part of the pre-Iowa calculus for Trump’s team was to not only notch as many Senate endorsements as possible, but to win them from figures that would add to a feeling that the primary was over before it even started.
“What this has largely been about is: who can we get to add to the sense of inevitability so they can wrap this up and stop spending money. … Who do our voters really care about? Who do the press care about? Who’s a big deal?” said a GOP aide for a senator who has endorsed Trump, namechecking Cruz along with Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
Rubio, a rival of Trump’s in 2016, announced his support for Trump on the eve of the caucuses, snubbing fellow Floridian DeSantis in the process.
Despite Trump’s dominance, there remain a couple of figures increasingly unlikely to back him until he is officially the GOP nominee, headlined by those in the upper reaches of the GOP conference.
Outside of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), whose bad blood with Trump is well known, Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), a top McConnell ally, indicated to reporters last week that he isn’t in a rush to make another presidential endorsement, having backed Scott’s campaign last year.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) also demurred when asked about endorsing the ex-president and echoed Ernst, saying that he’ll do whatever is possible to defeat Biden. Both Thune and Cornyn have been critical about Trump’s viability in a general election setting in the past.
While the most senior Republicans aren’t expected to jump on board, some in the conference want to see unity behind Trump’s campaign, including from leadership.
“They need to,” said Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), who was the first senator to back Trump’s campaign. “He’s going to be our nominee.”