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Trump, Pence, others ramp up for allies in midterms

By Hannah Knowles Washington Post

DES MOINES, Iowa – Mike Pence smiled through rain and hail at the Iowa State Fair as he campaigned for a traditional conservative senator on the ballot this fall – and teased his own potential run in a state that has long kicked off the GOP presidential nominating process. “My family and I will do as we’ve always done, and that is reflect and pray on where we might next serve,” the former vice president said.

On the same day, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was in battleground Pennsylvania campaigning for a far-right nominee for governor. DeSantis recounted his battles with “establishment Republicans” and “the corporate media,” as well as the culture wars in which they have both have eagerly fought.

Just as DeSantis’s event got underway, Donald Trump’s political organization announced his own rally for the “Pennsylvania Trump Ticket” on Labor Day weekend. The nominees he plans to promote are among a slew of polarizing candidates, that more broadly includes election deniers and newcomers the former president has helped push through primaries. Some Republicans worry their nominations could cost the GOP crucial seats.

All across the country, potential GOP 2024 presidential candidates are fanning out and stepping up their involvement in the midterms, boosting Republican candidates as they pitch themselves. They are seeking to sharpen their political brand and reach new audiences by helping like-minded candidates – who are also potential future endorsers – and visiting early primary states where advisers know their words will garner extra attention.

Their presence on the trail – together with pitches to donors, expanding staffs and plans to release memoirs – underscores the widespread interest in the party running for president, or at least in keeping the option open. Even at a moment when many Republicans say Trump has secured his grip on the GOP and would begin as a heavy favorite for the nomination if he runs, the uncertainty surrounding his legal and political challenges, combined with the full slate of ambitious Republicans, has effectively set off a preliminary campaign for 2024.

“It’s surprisingly business-as-usual,” said Republican strategist Bob Heckman, a veteran of presidential campaigns, noting that Republicans are not “timid” or “frozen” in the face of Trump’s repeated suggestions he might seek a second White House term. There’s good reason to make allies now, Heckman said – they may decide against running down the road, but “if you haven’t done the prep work, you can’t recapture that.”

The busy travels have highlighted potential strengths and challenges for candidates ahead of 2024. Pence, who has faced fierce criticism from the 45th president and his allies for his refusal to overturn Trump’s 2020 election loss, won cheers at the state fair, but also encountered some hostility. “Go home!” one woman yelled as Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Pence addressed reporters here in Iowa. In interviews, some Iowans insisted Pence could have kept Trump in office.

Much of the Republican primary season has revolved around Trump, who has used the intraparty contests to try to dislodge those he holds grudges against, and elevate many inexperienced candidates who have embraced his false claims about the 2020 election being stolen from him. Many races have hinged on which candidate hews mostly closely to the former president’s divisive positions.

The results have been mixed. Trump failed in his bid to unseat Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) for certifying Joe Biden’s 2020 election win, but found success in preventing House Republicans who voted to impeach him last year from returning to Congress. (Only two of the 10 who cast that vote are nominees in the general election.)

Trump’s influence will face a new test in the fall, after his endorsements boosted candidates who some Republicans think could complicate the GOP push to win back control of Congress. Among those candidates is Mehmet Oz, the celebrity doctor trailing in the polls in Pennsylvania’s Senate race. Trump will campaign for Oz and GOP gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano on Sept. 3. Taylor Budowich, a Trump spokesperson, touted Trump’s midterm endorsements and said in a statement that he “continues to reshape the Republican Party with fighters and champions of his America First agenda.”

The activity in the midterms extends well beyond Trump, DeSantis and Pence.

Other potential 2024 hopefuls have also been active on the trail this summer and have been setting up plans for the fall.

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., has starred in ads to support GOP candidates in Iowa and several swing states, all aired by his political action committee.

Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley has endorsed a long list of candidates through her PAC.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, joined a fundraiser for Grassley the day before the Iowan’s fundraiser and state fair visit with Pence.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, R, a centrist Trump critic, was at the fair, too, and criticized Del. Dan Cox, the GOP nominee to succeed him – calling the Trump-endorsed candidate a “crazy guy.” Hogan’s visit came right after a trip to neighboring Nebraska to support Republican Rep. Don Bacon, who has clashed with Trump.

Hogan plans to campaign for Christine Drazan, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in an unusually competitive race in liberal-leaning Oregon, according to advisers to both of them. Hogan has also been boosting other Republicans targeted by Trump, including moderate Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Kemp.

Invites to travel have been pouring in for another GOP governor – Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, whose upset victory last year made him a rising star in the party. Youngkin has said he is “humbled” by people’s interest in a potential presidential run but has not “even begun to undertake” that decision.

“Our first invites started coming in the week after he won last year,” said one Youngkin adviser, who like others interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions. “We had invites to probably 20 states.”

His team has heard from Senate candidates, the adviser added, but is focused on governor’s races for now, given his limited travel time. This month he’ll head to Michigan for GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon, at her request, the adviser said, and he expects to travel in September and October to more purple and blue-leaning states similar to Virginia.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., has been reaching out “immediately” to newly-nominated GOP congressional candidates to volunteer his advice and offer to hit the trail – including in Iowa, according to an aide. Cotton’s pitch to donors has emphasized that strong showings in the early nominating states of Iowa and New Hampshire can be more predictive of success than early name recognition.

Cotton and others scoping out a potential 2024 bid have been stumping for candidates up and down the ballot in both places, even joining candidates for sheriff and state senator. The aide to Cotton said the main goal is “party building” at every level but acknowledged the “added benefit” of groundwork for 2024.

Strategists agreed building a reputation in Iowa and New Hampshire is especially important for the many lower-polling candidates eyeing a run. National polling has shown Trump dominating a hypothetical GOP vote, with DeSantis in second place and others well behind.

But some Republicans have said they are skeptical that anyone can successfully challenge Trump, no matter the work they put in this year. GOP strategist John Thomas, who had been building a political action committee to support a possible DeSantis bid, said those plans are on pause as it appears increasingly likely the former president will run.

GOP pollster Whit Ayres said he groups Republican voters into three categories: about 10% who are appalled by Trump, about 40% who would “walk through a wall of flame for him” and another 50% who are supportive of Trump – and defensive when he’s attacked – but open to other candidates.

This dynamic has put a spotlight on one potential candidate who some in the party say see as a potential future leader of the movement Trump has built: DeSantis. Strategists and donors said DeSantis is in high demand on the campaign trail this year. The governor gained national prominence while denouncing coronavirus restrictions and vaccine mandates and embracing fights over social issues that animate the Republican base, such as the way schools teach children about gender and sexual orientation.

DeSantis has been hitting the trail for GOP nominees closely aligned with Trump – a pattern that highlights his competing claim to the former president’s voters. Recently, DeSantis has rallied with Trump-endorsed candidates in New Mexico, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Ohio, including some of the GOP’s farthest-right nominees who have baselessly called to overturn or decertify Trump’s 2020 election defeat.

While DeSantis has steered clear of Trump’s false claims the election was rigged, he has taken up the resulting GOP push for more voting restrictions and this month announced the first arrests by a new election police force in his state.

Stumping last Friday in Pennsylvania for Mastriano – who played a prominent role in efforts to try to throw out the swing state’s 2020 election results and who would have significant power over the 2024 election if he wins – DeSantis did not mention Trump. Hundreds packed into a Pittsburgh hotel ballroom as DeSantis touted his nearly four years of conservative wins in Florida, from a surge in GOP voter registration to legislation that prohibited vaccine mandates.

For 43 minutes, DeSantis recapped his battles against “prosecutors who refuse to enforce the law” and “woke” corporations like Disney. He mocked negative media coverage and “fake polls.” He received his loudest applause – a standing ovation – with a riff that borrowed from Winston Churchill.

“We must fight the woke in our schools. We must fight the woke in our businesses. We must fight the woke in government agencies,” DeSantis said. “We can never, ever surrender to woke ideology.”

A spokeswoman for the governor’s campaign declined to comment on DeSantis’s efforts to boost others in the midterms or the possibility of a presidential run. DeSantis is favored to win reelection this fall and, ahead of this week’s Florida primary, has endorsed a slew of candidates for school board positions in the state.

Other potential 2024 candidates whose voter bases might overlap heavily with Trump’s have struck some contrasts with their endorsements in the midterms. A strategist close to Cruz noted the senator’s early backing of Eric Schmitt, who won the GOP nomination for Senate in Missouri, as well as his support for Republican Rep. Mo Brooks, whom Trump endorsed and then abandoned in Alabama’s Senate race as Brooks sunk in the polls. In the Missouri primary, Trump issued a last-minute endorsement for “ERIC,” a name shared by two candidates – including a scandal-plagued ex-governor who other Republican leaders saw as a major liability.

“Loyalty” to allies has been one driver of Cruz’s endorsements, the strategist said pointedly, calling Cruz “eager” to run for president again but doubting that he would challenge Trump. The strategist spoke on the condition of anonymity to be more candid. Cruz spokesman Steve Guest said in a statement that in the primaries, “Cruz looks to endorse the strongest conservative candidate who can win,” and is committed to “crisscrossing the country to campaign for as many House and Senate candidates as possible to ensure that Republicans retake majorities in 2022.”

Pence, meanwhile, drew only implicit contrasts with Trump as he made his clearest foray yet into presidential primary traditions in Iowa after a trip to New Hampshire. Working his way around a local GOP “grill and chill” held inside a middle school, he signed a girl’s “Trump Pence Make America Great Again” sign.

“I hardly have to tell you that today our country is almost unrecognizable compared to the days of security and prosperity of the Trump-Pence administration,” the former vice president told the mostly older crowd, taking aim at inflation and the Biden administration’s border policies.

Supporting Grassley at the state fair on Friday, Pence said the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee would “continue to demand answers” about the search warrant executed at Mar-a-Lago. But he also reiterated his pushback on far-right calls to “Defund the FBI,” saying he would “continue to be a voice” against attacks on rank-and-file law enforcement. Trump, who has been critical of the FBI search and has promoted evidence-free allegations that it was politically motivated, recently shared an article on social media titled “The Fascist Bureau of Investigation.”

There were signs of the uphill battle Pence might face as Trump has turned many voters against him. One man, Pat Gutting, seemed thrilled to have touched Pence – “I’m never going to wash this hand again,” he told staff at the fair’s GOP booth as he walked past – but back at the food stall where he works, he voiced concerns.

Gutting, 57, didn’t like Pence’s remarks that week that calls to “defund the FBI” were just as wrong as calls to “defund the police.” And Pence “could have certified the election” on Jan. 6, 2021, he said – by which he meant certifying a Trump victory.

Still, there was plenty of applause as Pence made his way through a rainstorm and red-carpeted exhibition hall clogged with people and cameras. He shook hands, posed for pictures and pumped his fist.

“I think he did the right thing when the pressure was on,” said 71-year-old Harold Barnes, a former chairman of the Linn County GOP, referring to Pence’s decision to certify the 2020 election. He said Pence has the right approach now – “going forward and not being confrontational about things that have happened in the past.”

Pence’s highest-profile clashes with Trump have come in dueling gubernatorial endorsements in Georgia and Arizona, where the former president had backed candidates loyal to his false election claims. Kemp, Pence’s preferred candidate in Georgia, prevailed with the backing of much of the Republican establishment, while Trump’s pick prevailed in Arizona.

Here in Iowa, the 45th president’s appeal was evident.

“Trump all the way,” said Carsen Halverson, a co-worker of Gutting’s.