DeSantis gets warm words at GOP Hill event, but few endorsements
Many congressional Republicans are eager for a Donald Trump alternative in 2024. Yet even with Ron DeSantis right in front of them, few are committing early to Trump’s chief rival for the GOP nomination.
The Florida governor and former House member returned to Capitol Hill on Tuesday for the start of a prolonged courtship with his party’s lawmakers — outreach he’ll need to step up if he hopes to topple Trump in a presidential primary. But among the nine Republicans who are formally co-hosting DeSantis’ congressional meet-and-greet, only three so far are willing to call it an endorsement.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said in an interview that he considers DeSantis a friend but that his co-hosting status for the governor’s event is not an endorsement. In fact, Lee said he’d be willing to co-host other GOP presidential contenders in the same fashion — including Trump.
Another two of the nine lawmakers listed as co-hosts of the event harmonized with Lee: “I’m not endorsing anybody. I just think it’s always good to see who’s out there,” Rep. Randy Feenstra (R-Iowa) said, adding that he participated because of his home state’s first-in-the-nation GOP primary slot. “I support any person who wants to throw their hat in the ring.”
“I’m not co-hosting — I’m a special guest,” quipped Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Ill.) when asked Tuesday about his involvement. He has also not endorsed in the 2024 primary.
The DeSantis-Hill GOP meeting marked the start of a charged battle for the attention of congressional Republicans between the party’s two presumed presidential frontrunners. The favor of GOP lawmakers won’t determine the nominee, but it remains critical to campaign-trail buzz and earned media: The open distaste Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) drew from most of his Senate colleagues, for example, hurt him in the 2016 primary fight with Trump.
And institutional support still acts as a crucial validator, particularly for a nascent candidate like DeSantis, who has faced nagging questions about his viability after recent stumbles. Just three House Republicans — and no senators — have endorsed DeSantis, compared with dozens for Trump, although Tuesday’s event is the first signal that the Florida governor is looking to change that.
Even so, the DeSantis event attracted at least three dozen Republican lawmakers, including two senators besides Lee: Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), according to a person in the room. DeSantis, in line with his desire to stay above the fray, did not mention Trump, even as his possible GOP rival continues to take shots at him.
“Trump’s a known quantity. He’s not. I think he would probably benefit from sitting down and talking to people,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said of DeSantis. “Trump’s in a good spot. I think DeSantis brings a lot to the table and it would be a serious challenge for President Trump.”
But even after he hobnobbed with members and staff in a cloistered upstairs room at the Heritage Foundation on Pennsylvania Avenue, few who left the room were willing to offer an endorsement. Several tried to downplay their attendance, saying they went because the governor was a former colleague and they wanted to say hello.
Despite the desire for new blood at the top of the ticket, Hill Republicans still prioritize avoiding Trump’s anger. And the general hesitancy to back DeSantis, who still has not officially declared his intent to run, underscores a persistent reality in GOP politics that he will have to confront: Crossing the former president remains a risky endeavor. Trump and his team are paying close attention to which members have — or have not — backed his campaign, and have been strategically rolling out endorsements from inside the Capitol in recent weeks.
There was at least one exception, though: First-term Rep. Laurel Lee (R-Fla.), who served as DeSantis’ secretary of state until she was elected last November, endorsed DeSantis just hours before he spoke to Republicans on Tuesday.
“His leadership and his vision made Florida a shining beacon of freedom,” Lee said in a statement, becoming the first in the Florida delegation to back him.
Trump’s team, though, had an answer for that. His campaign nabbed three endorsements from Florida Republicans in the 24 hours before DeSantis was set to arrive, including Rep. John Rutherford just hours before the event. (Reps. Greg Steube and Brian Mast also endorsed Trump).
Then there was Rep. Lance Gooden (R-Texas) — who announced he would endorse Trump as he walked out of the DeSantis meeting, offering a television interview and firing off a tweet.
It’s part of a trend inside the Capitol. Trump has nearly doubled his Senate endorsements over the past month, with nine senators now endorsing him — roughly 20 percent of the conference. That support includes Graham, Tennessee Sens. Bill Hagerty and Marsha Blackburn, as well as Sens. Ted Budd of North Carolina, Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi, Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma, J.D. Vance of Ohio and Eric Schmitt of Missouri.
And there may be more on the way.
“I think Trump will clean them up. I think the polls are pretty indicative of where most would be. Despite Trump’s challenges, he was the original,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who hasn’t endorsed a presidential candidate.
And Trump started wooing members months ago. He recently held a three-and-a-half-hour dinner with GOP lawmakers over the weekend while he was in Nashville for the RNC retreat, where he ate with Hagerty, Blackburn and Tennessee GOP Reps. Chuck Fleischmann, John Rose and Diana Harshbarger, according to Fleischmann.
“I don’t know many people going to the DeSantis event,” Fleischmann said on Tuesday afternoon, a day after he formallyendorsed the former president. “I think he and the other candidates who might seek to challenge President Trump for the nomination are going to realize very, very quickly that it’s Trump’s nomination.”
The “special guests” listed on the invitation include: Feenstra, LaHood, Reps. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) and Bob Good (R-Va.), as well as Sen. Lee, and Reps. Lee, Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and Chip Roy (R-Texas), who have all formally endorsed the Florida governor.
In the end, dozens of House Republicans attended the DeSantis meet-and-greet, where he spoke about his accomplishments in Florida — like winning his reelection bid by 20 points last year, while his state saw a population boom as blue states lost residents. Attendees spanned the ideological spectrum, from moderates like Reps. Maria Salazar (R-Fla.) and Michael Lawler (R-N.Y.) to ultraconservative members of the House Freedom Caucus, including Reps. Andy Harris (R-Md.) and Bob Good (R-Va.)
“I think that’s a template for the country. And people are excited to hear what he’s got to share,” Good said as he left the event.
Outside, the street was mobbed with Capitol Police officers and flag-wielding protesters holding signs with “Ron DeFascist” on them, who were cordoned off by yellow tape as they chanted, “DeSantis go home.” Some accosted attendees as they walked in or out, with pop ballads blasting out of speakers.
Some of the members who trickled down Pennsylvania Avenue were not there to see DeSantis. They were attending a Tuesday Group meeting at Sonoma Restaurant & Wine Bar next door. (A few popped in to see the governor after observing the crowd.)
“All of the candidates, including Ron DeSantis, all of them I think are really sharp,” said Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah), who has not endorsed. “I think there’s some real good talent there, and I’m kind of interested to see a robust Republican primary.”
In a brief interview, Massie suggested that some members might fear that their Trump-supporting voters would turn on them if they endorsed the former president’s potential opponent. He also appeared to suggest that some lawmakers might be looking for a quid pro quo as they try to get through their own elections.
“I think when somebody comes out for DeSantis, it’s meaningful to DeSantis,” said Massie, who once fought forhis own Trump endorsement back home. ‘When somebody comes out for Trump, it’s meaningful for the person who’s endorsing Trump, not necessarily Trump.”
At least one Republican who didn’t plan to attend, though, said he was happy the Florida governor was here — and happy he was apparently looking to enter the race.
“I met him, great guy. … But I’ve already got my candidate,” said Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), who has endorsed former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. “We got a good stable to pick from. … This will be competitive. We gotta win in 2024. We gotta change course.”
Olivia Beavers contributed to this report.
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