By Alayna Treene, Kristen Holmes, Melanie Zanona and Daniel Strauss, CNN
(CNN) — A subtle message from the Trump campaign has Republican lawmakers in Washington and across the country eager to show their loyalty to former President Donald Trump before it may be too late.
A spate of recent endorsements from various members of Congress and governors – including every member of House GOP leadership and the No. 3 Senate Republican – is a direct result of Trump and his team’s ramped up effort to secure as many endorsements as possible in the final days before the Iowa caucuses. The former president’s advisers have quietly informed some Republicans that they are keeping track of who endorses him pre- and post-Iowa, four sources familiar with discussions told CNN.
That message has loudly echoed through the halls of the US Capitol and governors mansions across the country and has encouraged some remaining GOP holdouts to speed up their endorsement timelines.
“After he heard that they were keeping tabs, he decided — ‘If I’m going to endorse anyway, why be on the wrong side of this thing?’” an adviser to a lawmaker who recently endorsed Trump told CNN of their boss’ thinking.
And of the few congressional Republicans who have endorsed other candidates, at least one says they are facing some pressure to change gears. GOP Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina, who has endorsed Nikki Haley’s presidential bid, told CNN that someone recently reached out on behalf of Trump to see whether he’d be willing to switch his endorsement ahead of Iowa – an entreaty that Norman declined.
“I’m very comfortable with my choice with Nikki. You see what she’s doing in the polls,” Norman said. “I like Donald Trump. His policies were great. But we could use a person that can spend eight years trying to correct this country.”
Senior Trump campaign adviser Chris LaCivita denied that anyone on the campaign contacted Norman about flipping his support, adding that Trump and the congressman have not spoken in over a year.
Trump and those in his inner circle have privately said they view endorsements as a sign of loyalty and the January 15 caucuses as a defining marker. Many people close to the former president have characterized the weeks before the Iowa caucuses as an “invisible primary” — one that ends on January 15.
While some Trump advisers argue that those who endorse after Iowa won’t be “blacklisted,” those who have interacted with Trump in the past are still wary of potential repercussions they may face by waiting, knowing his fixation on loyalty.
In private conversations with his allies, Trump has fumed over certain lawmakers whom he previously endorsed but have yet to return the favor.
Trump’s team is also hyper aware of the increased media attention on Iowa in the lead up to the caucuses, and it views rolling out more endorsements in the final days as an effective strategy that showcases their “organizational aptitude,” as one campaign adviser described it. The more endorsements rolled out before Iowa, the stronger the campaign looks, multiple advisers told CNN.
“President Trump’s campaign is committed to building the strongest operation nationwide before the first votes are cast,” the adviser said.
Trump’s team expects the former president to come away victorious next Monday and, if all goes as planned, with a win definitive enough to set the tone for the rest of the GOP primary season. With that, there is a belief that “the chickens will come home to roost,” one senior adviser said of Republicans falling in line behind Trump. And Trump’s team is closely watching who backs him before his path to the GOP nomination seems like a foregone conclusion.
As part of the push, Trump — who is known to fixate on his scorecard of endorsements — has personally been making calls to lawmakers encouraging them to get behind him, especially those he has previously endorsed, multiple sources familiar with the calls told CNN.
The former president also speaks directly with each member prior to their endorsement, a senior Trump campaign adviser said.
“He applies a very personal touch to securing endorsements for the campaign,” the adviser told CNN.
Getting support on the Hill
The Trump campaign has also relied heavily on his Hill surrogates to help them wrangle additional endorsements. House GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, for example — one of Trump’s fiercest allies in Congress — has been increasingly whipping House Republicans to get behind the former president.
During a weekly conference meeting before the new year, Stefanik gave a presentation to GOP lawmakers on Trump’s poll numbers, arguing he is running away with the nomination and urging members to get behind him, according to attendees.
She also pointed out there are added perks to publicly endorsing Trump – namely, a bump in fundraising. Stefanik, who became the first Republican leader to endorse Trump, explained that members who have officially endorsed Trump can receive a special badge for their digital fundraising pages, which could help boost their efforts to raise money, sources said.
Texas Rep. Ronny Jackson, Trump’s former nominee for veterans affairs secretary in 2018, has also been a key ally in helping lobby for endorsements of the former president, a senior Trump campaign adviser said. Like Stefanik, Jackson has repeatedly encouraged his House GOP colleagues, both in one-on-one conversations and more broadly, to get in line behind Trump.
Under the increasing pressure to endorse before Iowa, and with Trump’s nomination looking increasingly inevitable, House Republican leadership has largely fallen in line.
Last week, both House Majority Leader Steve Scalise and House GOP Whip Tom Emmer endorsed Trump, meaning every member of House Republican leadership is now officially backing the former president. Trump expressed particular pride in Emmer’s endorsement, a source familiar told CNN, noting that it came even after the former president tanked his speaker bid earlier this year.
Senate leadership has been slower to get on board. As of last week, only Montana Sen. Steve Daines, the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, was formally backing Trump. But Trump’s campaign picked up a key endorsement on Tuesday from Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the third-highest-ranking Senate Republican.
Some rank-and-file members of the upper chamber, including avid Trump supporter Ohio Sen. JD Vance, backed Trump early, and in recent weeks that number has risen.
Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas publicly announced he was endorsing Trump last week, and Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, as well Rep. Cliff Bentz of Oregon, are expected to announce their own endorsements in the coming days, among others, multiple sources familiar with the discussion tells CNN. The New York Times first reported that Barrasso and Lummis were planning to endorse this week.
Asked to explain his decision to endorse last week and whether he talked to Trump about it, Scalise told CNN: “We’ve been talking a lot.”
“I’ve spoken with him many times about the things he would do quickly as president to get our country back on track,” Scalise said. “And nobody’s better equipped than Donald Trump to do that.”
Some of Trump’s calls are more cordial than others, one source said.
Trump called Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds to ask for her endorsement before she backed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this year, two sources familiar with the call told CNN. In an interview, Reynolds said she told him she wouldn’t endorse him at that time. Another source said Trump became testy after that, reminding the Iowa Republican that he had supported her race for governor.
Trump, as well as his closest advisers, has also closely watched FiveThirtyEight’s endorsement tracker — scrutinizing not only the number of endorsements he is racking up, but also the endorsements his leading rivals are receiving.
Advisers to Trump have often referred to the tracker, as well as their internal endorsement analysis, like points scored in a sports game. So far, Trump has secured 104 endorsements from House Republicans, 19 from GOP senators and seven from governors.
In comparison, DeSantis has received five House GOP endorsements, zero Senate endorsements and two endorsements from governors. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has received one House endorsement, zero Senate endorsements, and one endorsement from a Republican governor.
Part of Trump’s hefty endorsement lead can be attributed to his campaign’s sophisticated endorsement strategy, which was deployed early into his campaign. Brian Jack, who served on Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns as well as in his administration and has close relationships with many members on Capitol Hill, has led the effort.
Some Republicans lawmakers, public figures and operatives uninterested in backing Trump have expressed unease about the repercussions of not getting behind him. At least one Republican lawmaker who had flirted with the idea of endorsing someone other than Trump told CNN there is some real concern about potential retribution from his camp, prompting them to stay neutral in the race. This member has also counseled other Republicans who are skeptical of Trump to just stay on the sidelines.
Their concern isn’t without merit – members of Trump’s team have indicated that if Trump becomes the nominee, they will not work with the Republican Governors Association, which Reynolds previously chaired.
But even those who have reservations about Trump and aren’t planning to endorse still say they will support him if he becomes the nominee – including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who admonished Trump after the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol and has since had a contentious relationship with the former president.
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