June 3, 2023

WASHINGTON — When Senator Steve Daines, the leader of the Republican campaign arm of the Senate, quietly informed Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, that he intended to endorse former President Donald J. Trump, Mr. McConnell felt it was a good idea.

Mr. McConnell, the Republican from Kentucky, is not in talks with the former president, having abruptly turned on him following the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol. Mr. Trump has publicly lashed out at the senator and repeatedly humiliated his wife with racist statements.

But the minority leader, according to a person familiar with his mindset, believed that someone in the Senate GOP leadership should have a working relationship with the party’s leading presidential candidate — and it might as well be the man charged with winning back the Senate majority. .

Mr. Daines’ endorsement of Mr. Trump this week — and Mr. McConnell’s personal blessing — highlighted how top Republican Republicans have quietly decided to join forces with their party’s leading presidential nominee, ending the toxic relationship that some of having pushed them aside with him to focus on what they hope will be a mutually beneficial political union.

Mr. Daines of Montana, the chairman of the Senate National Republican Committee, is the first and so far only member of the Senate GOP leadership team to endorse Mr. Trump. Mr. McConnell, who enabled Mr. Trump and his agenda during much of his presidency before the Capitol uprising, has not spoken to the former president since December 2020. His number 2, Senator John Thune of South Dakota, has also been mercilessly attacked. by Mr. Trump.

Mr Thune portrayed Mr Daines’ embrace of the former president as the cost of doing business – what it takes to win.

“He has a tough job to do,” said Mr. Thune to reporters at the Capitol. “He has a lot of races across the country that we need to win. And I think he wants as many allies as possible.’

When asked about Mr. Daines supporting someone who attacked both him and Mr. McConnell, the senator was momentarily at a loss for what to say.

“Well,” said Mr. Thune with a pause, “what can I tell you?”

Many Senate Republicans, unlike their House counterparts, view Trump as a political anchor who cost them the majority in 2020 with baseless allegations of voter fraud in Georgia that hurt their chances of winning the second round. Many believe that Mr. Trump cost them again in 2022 by supporting the Senate contenders who struggled in the general election. Mr. McConnell has attributed his party’s inability to win the Senate to “candidate quality” issues caused by Mr. Trump’s primary endorsements.

Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr. Trump, said there was “tremendous national and country support” for the former president when asked about the hesitant acceptance by Senate Republican leaders of Mr. Daines’ endorsement.

“By contrast, DeSantis has embarrassingly little support,” said Mr. Cheung.

Some Republicans are determined to avoid Mr. Trump. Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, a vocal critic of Mr. Trump who voted to convict the former president in both his impeachment proceedings, insisted that Mr. Daines’ support for Mr. Trump should not be taken as an embrace of the former president by the Senate GOP

“Montana is a great Trump-supporting state,” Romney said Wednesday. “I don’t think he did that as leader of the Republican team. Mitch McConnell is our leader and I doubt he will support anyone.”

A spokesman for Mr Daines declined to comment on Mr Romney’s characterization of the endorsement.

Some questioned whether Mr. Daines was deliberately challenging Mr. McConnell, as the party’s last campaign chairman, Senator Rick Scott of Florida, did during last year’s midterm elections.

“I was surprised,” Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, another member of the party leadership, said this week when asked what she thought of Daines’ support. “But all senators have the option to endorse whoever they want to endorse.”

In fact, Mr. Daines and Mr. McConnell are on the same wavelength.

Mr. Daines informed Mr. McConnell that he would support Mr. Trump ahead of a Monday night appearance on the podcast by Donald Trump Jr., the former president’s eldest son, according to the person familiar with his thinking.

Mr. McConnell sees Montana, West Virginia and Ohio — which Mr. Trump won by large margins — as one of the major Senate battlefields in 2024, and it will be up to Mr. Daines to keep the former president on friendly terms with the party’s favorite party. candidates, especially in the states where he remains wildly popular.

While the rest of Mr. McConnell keeps his distance from the former president, Mr. Daines regularly with Mr. Trump, also on Wednesday night, said a person with direct knowledge of the call was not authorized to discuss it publicly. .

So even after Mr. Trump disparaged Mr. McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, the Senate Minority Leader has played a familiar game with the former president, with whom he worked closely to cut taxes and strengthen the federal judiciary. stack with fiery conservatives.

Mr. McConnell has said as little as possible about the former president since cutting off all contact with him. He has ignored Mr. Trump’s attacks against him and his wife, and has refused to follow the approach of former Rep. Liz Cheney, Republican of Wyoming, who has said she intends to do everything in her power to prevent Mr. Trump from becoming president again. .

Instead, Mr. McConnell has said he is focused on winning back the Senate, and he is already making adjustments for the former president in service of that goal. He has said he will support Mr Trump if he wins the 2024 Republican nomination.

Like many of his colleagues, Texas Senator John Cornyn, himself a former chairman of the Republican campaign arm, is staying away from Trump. He said he did not intend to endorse the primary, but “will support the nominee” in the general election.

Mr Daines, he said, was “entitled to some leeway given the complexity of the political environment we find ourselves in”.

The Republicans’ goal, Cornyn added, was to regain the majority.

“And I don’t really care what the tactics are,” he said.