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Trump racks up Hill endorsements, while DeSantis faces headwinds

<i>Getty Images</i><br/>Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
Getty Images
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

By Melanie Zanona, Alayna Treene and Kristen Holmes, CNN

While Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis held a meet-and-greet on Capitol Hill Tuesday evening, former President Donald Trump and his team aimed to be one step ahead — planning a dinner at his Mar-a-Lago resort with members of the Florida congressional delegation just two days after the DeSantis reception.

Thursday’s dinner, which was described to CNN by multiple GOP sources, is the latest bid by Trump to court support from their shared home turf as the former president tries to show strength amid his mounting legal troubles and tweak his likely rival in the 2024 race.

The intense battle for Sunshine State endorsements kicked into overdrive this week: in the 24 hours ahead of DeSantis’s visit to Washington, three Florida Republicans — Reps. Greg Steube, John Rutherford and Brian Mast — officially announced their support for Trump, while DeSantis locked down his first Florida endorsement, his third overall, from Rep. Laurel Lee.

For Trump, securing as many congressional endorsements as possible — particularly from Florida — before DeSantis formally declares his candidacy has been a top personal priority, according to multiple sources close to the former president.

“We want to be able to show that even members in DeSantis’ own state, who know and work with him, don’t support him for president,” a source close to the Trump campaign told CNN.

The two men have approached the competition for endorsements differently, a reflection of their contrasting styles. Trump has been directly involved in lobbying members to get on board with his presidential bid, as have some of his advisers and top surrogates both on and off Capitol Hill. Even Trump-supporting Republican consultants spent days working the phones on the former president’s behalf.

Trump’s team is keeping close tabs on who is — and isn’t — endorsing him, and is expected to roll out more endorsements from the Florida delegation this week.

Florida Rep. Vern Buchanan endorsed Trump on Wednesday, the eighth Florida Republican to back the former president over their home state governor, DeSantis.

According to a source, Trump personally called Buchanan for the endorsement and invited Buchanan to dinner at Mar-a-Lago on Thursday night. Trump endorsed Buchanan ahead of his primary in 2022.

DeSantis, meanwhile, has only started the process of making critical inroads with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, with his team reaching out to some members and the governor meeting directly with members at the reception in Washington, though more lawmakers are expected to throw their support behind him once he officially gets in the race.

Endorsements, however, aren’t necessarily an indicator of performance in the race or future success. And while Trump has racked up more so far, DeSantis hasn’t formally announced a presidential bid yet, making their track records difficult to compare.

Still, DeSantis has his work cut out for him given Trump’s head start, previous relationships and early maneuvering. By the time Texas Rep. Lance Gooden walked into the meeting with DeSantis on Capitol Hill Tuesday, he had already privately indicated to Trump associates he would be backing the former president in 2024 — which he announced in a planned statement moments after leaving the event. The episode is one of many that illustrates the level at which Trump’s team is working to try and stay one step ahead of the Florida governor.

“I met with Governor DeSantis, and while he has done commendable work in Florida, there is no doubt in my mind that President Trump is the only leader who can save America from the leftist onslaught we are currently facing,” Gooden said in a statement.

Most lawmakers, however, are keeping their powder dry for now, worried about potential blowback from the notoriously vengeful Trump or crossing their powerful home state governor. One Florida lawmaker, describing the pressure they’re facing to pick a side, told CNN: “People are torn. We still have to govern. We have things we need from the state for our districts.”

Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, who was the second GOP lawmaker to back DeSantis, alluded to those fears, saying of the lawmakers attending Tuesday’s meet-and-greet, it “doesn’t mean they’re endorsing. It just means they’re not scared to talk.”

‘A very personal touch’

Trump’s team is being very deliberate about its outreach for endorsements, his advisers tell CNN, and is hyper focused on securing endorsements in states that are important to the presidential primary calendar, such as South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, in addition to his home state of Florida.

Trump is personally engaging lawmakers — especially those he has previously endorsed — and has spoken directly with each member prior to their endorsement, two sources familiar with the process tell CNN.

“He’s applying a very personal touch to securing endorsements for the campaign,” one of the sources said. “We’re competing for every endorsement in every state. He’s spent nearly a decade developing relationships and working to help elect Republicans to office. And calling upon those relationships and leveraging those relationships has led to the endorsement success that you’ve seen over the past few weeks.”

Trump and his team have said they understand that there are a number of hurdles the former president has to overcome this election cycle, including winning over skeptical voters and lawmakers. But his team believes he has an advantage when he connects directly with people.

“Trump can be very charming when he wants to be. People forget that,” one former Trump adviser previously told CNN.

Trump’s top advisers — including Susie Wiles, who runs the former president’s political operation, and Brian Jack, who helped managed Trump’s congressional relationships as his former White House political director and now advises both Trump and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy — have been making calls regarding endorsements on Trump’s behalf, his advisers tell CNN.

Top allies on the Hill have also engaged in outreach. House GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik — a fierce and early supporter of Trump — is intensely lobbying Republican members of Congress to formally back the former president. Texas Rep. Ronny Jackson, Trump’s former chief medical adviser while in office, and Florida Rep. Cory Mills have both been working members in their respective states as well to quietly shore up support at an early stage.

“I’m going to try to lead the fight on the Texas side, from a congressional aspect at least,” Jackson said.

At least two Republican consultants close to the Trump campaign with clients on Capitol Hill were also working on behalf of the former president to firm up support from members.

Many of the conversations from Trump’s team, his Hill supporters and outside Republican consultants have centered on reminding lawmakers that Trump helped them get elected, multiple sources familiar with the conversations tell CNN, and that Trump can help them in the future. Trump and his team have been especially focused on the members he endorsed in the past and the former president expects them to return the favor.

Trump and his surrogates are using a typical Trump-style, loyalty-centric pitch, acknowledging that while it’s still early in the 2024 presidential cycle, Trump will remember the people who supported him while the primary field was still uncertain. They have argued that he is leading in polls and will ultimately be the GOP nominee, so it’s smart for them to endorse now, according to members who have been lobbied on this front.

While Trump’s team is expected to roll out more Florida endorsements in the coming days, some lawmakers are keeping their options open. Several Florida members, including Reps. Maria Elvira Salazar, Kat Cammack and Mario Diaz-Balart, have coyly avoided an endorsement, only telling reporters they’re sure the next president will be from the Sunshine State.

DeSantis courts Capitol Hill

Unlike Trump — who received near-universal support from Hill Republicans while president — DeSantis has built fewer relationships on Capitol Hill despite serving for six years in Congress, where he was known as more of a loner.

But DeSantis earned goodwill traveling the country last cycle to help GOP candidates in contested battlegrounds, while Republicans picked up four seats in Florida on election night thanks to the Florida governor’s unprecedented role in the drawing of Florida’s new congressional map.

Massie told CNN that he had been hearing from GOP colleagues who were interested in getting to know DeSantis better, and so he suggested the idea of a meet-and-greet. And DeSantis, who has been under increasing pressure to prove he has the juice to take on Trump, was receptive to the idea.

Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, who became the first Republican to endorse DeSantis and helped host Tuesday’s event, said the governor “has a whole lot of support from a whole lot of people who have said they support the president publicly.”

Dozens of GOP lawmakers and conservative leaders flowed in and out of DeSantis’s closed-door reception at the Heritage Foundation — a meeting that was widely viewed as a key step ahead of DeSantis’s expected 2024 presidential campaign launch.

DeSantis was coy about his future presidential ambitions and did not divulge details of when he might formally enter the race, multiple Republican lawmakers told CNN as they left the event, but he admitted in private conversations with members that he’s seriously considering launching a bid.

“He’s done a great job as governor. He’s a significant Republican leader, and we will see if he is going to enter the presidential,” Rep. Dan Meuser of Pennsylvania told CNN. “He alluded to the idea that he’s giving it real consideration.”

DeSantis kicked off the event with brief remarks about the policies he’s enacted and implemented in Florida and reminisced about the days when he was still a member of the House — remarks he reiterated a few times throughout the meeting — before mingling with individual lawmakers, members told CNN.

“I think he’s America’s governor. He’s done an outstanding job and the people of Florida rewarded him with a 20-point win. He’s an example to everybody,” Rep. Bob Good of Virginia told CNN.

While many members consistently lauded DeSantis and his work in Florida, they also declined to offer their endorsement of him — at least this early on — telling CNN they plan to reserve their judgment until later in the primary.

“I’ve run many political campaigns. Endorsements by elected officials don’t mean a whole lot,” Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland said.

“No, I’m not (endorsing) at this point,” said Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado. “It’s an honor to see him. And I think it’s great that he’s here … I think it’s going to be a good group of people who run that will give Republicans a good choice.”

They also acknowledged that DeSantis has yet to formally announce a White House bid, so endorsing now is a bit premature. Privately, they admitted to CNN that such a move could land them in hot water with other candidates.

“I don’t see the upside to endorsing right now. The field is still forming,” one House Republican lawmaker who attended the meeting told CNN on the condition of anonymity. “For now, I’ll attend meetings and wait and see.”

More than two dozen House Republicans, in addition to Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and John Cornyn of Texas, attended DeSantis’s event.

Some of DeSantis’ allies, meanwhile, are dismissing the significance of endorsements, suggesting they say more about the person endorsing than it does the candidate.

Still, alarm bells went off inside DeSantis’ political circle when Florida Rep. Byron Donalds announced he was getting behind the former president earlier this month, just weeks after telling CNN he wouldn’t endorse until the field was set.

That “sent shockwaves through the entire Florida delegation,” one GOP consultant close to one of those members said, because Donalds was considered the closest to DeSantis of any House Republican in the state. Donalds introduced DeSantis at his victory rally on election night last year.

DeSantis’ team scrambled to try to convince Florida Republicans not to endorse until after he had formally decided to run, sources familiar with the discussions told CNN. Ryan Tyson, a pollster within DeSantis’ tight inner circle, reached out to members of the delegation to arrange a phone call with the governor.

However, DeSantis’ overtures were not particularly well received. Some were put off by DeSantis’s reluctant approach to courting their support. Two members of the delegation endorsed Trump after DeSantis’ team started making calls.

“If the governor wants the endorsement, he should be picking up the phone and calling directly instead of having an aide doing the reach out,” the source close to a House member said. “You know who calls for the Trump endorsement? Trump himself.”

“He has people calling that no one has ever heard of,” another Republican Hill aide told CNN.

Rep. Tim Burchett of Tennessee has also bristled at the governor’s more hands-off approach. He told CNN he unsuccessfully tried to get in contact with DeSantis through his team multiple times last year, but they have “blown me off.” Burchett also complained that he helped with a fundraiser for DeSantis in his district last year and they “left me off the list.”

Yet Burchett said he has no ill feelings toward the governor and opted to attend the Hill reception, where Burchett finally got some face time with DeSantis — and even snapped a selfie with the governor.

Still, Burchett said he has no intentions of officially picking sides, despite being contacted by Trump’s team and being a staunch Trump ally.

“I don’t think you pick up friends — you just pick up enemies” by endorsing someone, Burchett said.

DeSantis’ Hill backers say they aren’t worried about any potential punishment from Trump.

“I don’t think he can afford to do that. Because there will be several of us. I know some people already who are in the wings. There’s just too many,” Massie told CNN. “And why should we get attacked for expressing a preference in a primary?”

Roy, who broke with Trump over certifying the 2020 election, added: “It’s not the first time I’ve stepped into these waters.”

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Steve Contorno and Annie Grayer contributed to this report.

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