Trump's GOP Friends Stand Outside Party Circle
During a campaign stop in Maine earlier this week, Donald Trump had a notable guest on stage to introduce him: A Republican governor.
“I want to thank our governor, our governor, I call him ours,” Trump said in Bangor, referring to Paul LePage. “He’s a great, great guy.”
LePage was an early endorser of the now-presumptive GOP nominee and is considered as controversial, brash, and divisive as Trump himself -- if not more so. He’s been labeled “America’s craziest governor” and is unpopular in the state, even though he was re-elected two years ago.
Still, LePage’s appearance was remarkable in that it is so rare these days for a current office holder to want to be mentioned in the same sentence as Trump -- let alone campaign with him. New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, facing a difficult re-election this year, did not join Trump on a Thursday trip to Manchester, where he criticized trade policy that she supported.
And it casts a light on the small and eccentric group of Trump’s friends in the political sphere. They are a mix of current and former office holders, including former presidential primary rivals. Few of them carry much clout in Republican circles these days, but some have been effective advisers on politics and policy for the presumptive nominee. Some campaign for him in person or on television, while others are working to court their respective networks on his behalf.
The group includes New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown (who also ran for New Hampshire’s Senate seat), and LePage. New York Rep. Chris Collins has fashioned himself into a Capitol Hill liaison for Trump. Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker has met with Trump to advise him on foreign policy, though has been critical of him at turns. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has also endorsed him and is considereed a possible running mate.
The fact that Trump has so few GOP buddies in high places is something that endears him to supporters and appeals to those frustrated with Washington and government across the country. “He’s done well without a political pedigree or background,” Huckabee told RCP. “He only needs people who have been through this to assist in the more technical aspects of the campaign calendar, structure, and process.”
But Trump’s lack of establishment support could be coming back to bite him. A Fox News poll released this week found just 74 percent of Republicans support Trump, compared to 82 percent last month. Half of them, according to the survey, would prefer a different GOP candidate.
Republican leaders including Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell have endorsed Trump but are not actively campaigning for him. And Trump has just now begun fundraising for the party, something past nominees had started much earlier in the process. Trump rarely mentions representatives of the states in which he is campaigning, though there have been exceptions. He criticized New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez during a rally he hosted in her state after she refused to endorse him or appear with him there.
Many in the party, including the two former presidents, are boycotting the convention in Cleveland next month. And Trump is instead looking to sports stars and other friends, family members, and acquaintances outside politics to be a part of that week’s program.
Trump’s political network has become particularly interesting as he undertakes the process of vetting and selecting his running mate. The businessman has said he would prefer someone with political experience to balance his lack of it.
Among the contenders is Christie, a former presidential primary rival and longtime friend of Trump’s who took a significant amount of heat from fellow Republicans for endorsing him in February. Many called Christie a sellout.
Christie’s connections and political power from serving as the chair of the Republican Governors Association and from being re-elected in a blue state with support across key constituencies is thought to be an advantage for anyone he would endorse. The New York Times reported that Christie is a key adviser in the campaign who urged the ousting of former manager Corey Lewandowski and who has played an active role in fundraising and seeking the support of fellow governors.
Christie reportedly is being officially vetted by the campaign as a running mate, and he was tapped to lead the transition team if the candidate is elected. While the governor hasn’t had much success in bringing his colleagues on board (the New York Times reported that efforts to persuade friend and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan failed), he has defended the candidate in key moments, including last month when Trump was accused of racism amid the Judge Gonzalo Curiel controversy.
Pence also is being vetted as a running mate, according to reports. The conservative governor of a red state that Barack Obama won in 2008 endorsed Ted Cruz in the primary, but has said Trump would do well in his state. Pence is also up for re-election this cycle, so his political fate could intertwine with Trump’s.
Scott Brown is a regular on cable news campaigning for Trump, and he knows many senators personally, having served in the upper chamber. But he may not have much sway: he lost his Senate seat to Elizabeth Warren in 2012 and then lost again two years later when he challenged New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in a highly favorable year for Republicans.
Trump’s chief congressional ally is Sessions, a conservative who fought hard against the 2013 “Gang of Eight” bipartisan immigration bill. He advised the candidate on policy, and his former aide, Stephen Miller, now works on the campaign as an adviser to Trump.
Huckabee, a former pastor who won Iowa in 2008, is actively campaigning the Christian conservative base for Trump, although some key evangelical leaders are still skeptical about the candidate. Huckabee moderated a question-and-answer session with Trump and 1,000 Christian leaders in New York City this month. He visits Trump and talks with him on the phone regularly, and has been asked to speak at the convention.
Huckabee argues Trump doesn’t really need many more friends in Washington, and that it is far more important to have broad voter support.
Congressional Correspondent James Arkin contributed to this report.