(The Hill) — Only one Republican senator has announced publicly that he will support former President Donald Trump’s 2024 reelection bid, a sign of the uphill battle Trump faces in his quest to win the Republican presidential nomination and a second term in the White House.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) told reporters this week that he will support Trump’s candidacy for president and praised his track record in the Oval Office.
The rest of the Senate GOP conference is holding back, skeptical he can win the 2024 presidential election or even beat Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the primary.
Even Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), perhaps Trump’s closest ally in the Senate, hasn’t endorsed Trump’s candidacy, though he praised the former president’s campaign kickoff speech and says he will be “hard to beat.”
The vast majority of Senate Republicans are staying neutral for the time being, waiting to see who else jumps into the primary, whether Trump gets hit with a criminal indictment from the Justice Department after Friday’s appointment of a special counsel and how events play out before the 2024 Iowa caucuses.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), an outspoken critic of Trump, said almost the entire Senate Republican conference did not want him to announce his presidential campaign on Tuesday, fearing it would create a major distraction ahead of the Georgia Senate runoff.
“One senator in a meeting we had this week said, ‘How many in this room want to see President Trump announce he’s running for president today?’ Not one hand up,” Romney said, describing the scene at a closed-door Republican meeting on Tuesday.
A second Republican senator confirmed Romney’s anecdote.
“I think we’re going to be looking at the other people who may run,” Romney added.
“I’m one who believes we have a much stronger bench than bringing out the retired war horse that has lost three in a row,” he said, referring to the GOP’s loss of the House majority in 2018, the White House and Senate in 2020 and their failure to win back the Senate in 2022.
Romney called Trump the “900-lb gorilla when it comes to the Republican Party” after Trump lost the 2020 election to President Joe Biden and predicted at the time he would maintain his grip on the GOP.
He says that’s no longer the case.
“Maybe he’s 400 lbs at this stage,” Romney quipped.
Even so, Trump remains a formidable political force, with a following among roughly 30 to 40 percent of Republican voters, GOP senators estimate.
“He has an avid following, just like anyone who has built as strong an organization as he has. Many people love him, want to see him succeed. I don’t think it’s the majority of the party, but it may be the plurality, and that’s what he’s counting on,” Romney said.
Tuberville, who was elected to the Senate in 2020 and enthusiastically embraced Trump’s attacks on Democrats, is the senator most bullish about Trump’s prospects.
“I might be his campaign manager,” Tuberville joked when asked about the lack of support for Trump among other GOP senators.
He acknowledged that Trump will face a tough race.
“There will be more people running, and it will be a battle for two years,” he said. “I support his policies. We all understand sometimes the rhetoric behind it turns people off but, hey, I’ve been a football coach, I understand all that. Sometimes you got to stand up for what you believe in.”
Tuberville said Trump’s biggest advantage over DeSantis is his experience serving as commander in chief and managing an economy where the unemployment rate dropped down to 3.6 percent before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March of 2020.
He said DeSantis “has been good following the same trajectory as Donald Trump,” but added, “He’s run a state, he ain’t run a country.”
Other GOP senators who were staunch Trump allies when he was in the Oval Office are keeping their powder dry ahead of the 2024 primary.
“At this point, it’s too early,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). “He’s not an incumbent, and I’d like to see who else gets in the race. I hope some others do. I just think we need to have choices, debates and hold people to some promises.”
Cramer noted there’s growing political momentum behind DeSantis.
“I almost don’t know how he couldn’t” get in the race “given just how high the demand for him is within the party,” he added.
“I’ve always kind of liked Mike Pompeo, actually, as a candidate. I wouldn’t endorse him right out of the chute,” Cramer said, providing a glimpse in his own thinking about the 2024 primary.
Pompeo, who served as CIA director and secretary of State under Trump, is viewed as a top-tier prospective presidential candidate.
He took a swing at Trump on Friday tweeting: “We were told we’d get tired of winning. But I’m tired of losing. And so are most Republicans.”
Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) made a splash last week when she identified DeSantis, not Trump, as the de facto leader of the Republican Party.
But she was reluctant to double down on her pronouncement, refusing to talk about Trump or DeSantis to a crowd of reporters and television cameras outside a Banking Committee hearing later in the week.
And while Republican senators see Trump as weakened, they are being careful not to say something that could make them a target of the former president’s wrath.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who essentially blamed Trump and MAGA-allied candidates for turning off independent and moderate GOP voters, was careful not to say his name in briefing reporters about what went wrong for Senate Republicans on Election Day.
He also made it clear that he will not oppose Trump in a 2024 presidential primary.
“The way I’m going to go into this presidential primary season is to stay out of it. I don’t have a dog in that fight. I think it’s going to be a highly contested nomination fight with other candidates entering,” McConnell told reporters.
McConnell’s deputies, including Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.), who has criticized Trump’s relentless claims of fraud in the 2020 election, also says he’ll stay neutral.
Trump’s support within the Senate GOP conference is likely to grow once the presidential primary season gets further underway, lawmakers and aides predict.
Sen.-elect J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) praised Trump during his winning Senate campaign as “the best president in my lifetime,” for example. Trump’s endorsement was crucial to Vance winning a crowded Republican primary in May.
A senior Senate GOP aide agreed with Romney’s analysis that even though Trump’s support among Republican voters is the lowest it’s been since he won the nomination in 2016, he could be tough to beat in a primary if he can consistently win between 30 and 40 percent of the vote and his rivals split the anti-Trump vote.
Trump didn’t start winning more than 50 percent of the primary vote until April 19 of that year, when he carried New York, Connecticut and Delaware with 59 percent, 58 percent and 61 percent of the vote, respectively.
“You had the whole anti-Trump contingent split up between [Sen. Ted] Cruz [R-Texas], [Sen. Marco] Rubio [R-Fla.] and [former Fla. Gov. Jeb] Bush,” the aide noted, referring to the 2016 primary.
“In 2024, it really is going to be a choice of Trump or not-Trump,” the source said. “If there are eight people splitting 75 percent [of the anti-Trump] vote, they don’t win.”