The “stay away strategy,” as one aide described it, would involve Trump steering clear of states or districts where a confluence of factors — such as his popularity and the demographic makeup — could mean his presence might sabotage Republican chances.
“There are absolutely places he shouldn’t go. I wouldn’t put him in Maryland, New Hampshire, or Arizona,” said a person close to Trump. Despite the former President previously campaigning in those states for his own campaigns or other candidates, this person suggested Trump harm GOP Senate or gubernatorial hopefuls if he were to make appearances next year.
The approach assumes an unusual level of deference from the prideful ex-President, who has long insisted his support is the most essential ingredient in any Republican candidate’s quest for victory. Trump has relished his position atop the GOP since leaving office and has spent much of the past week huddling with aides and outside advisers at Mar-a-Lago to discuss his involvement in 2022 and where he should be most active on the ground. Trump has already endorsed Republican primary challengers and incumbents at national and statewide levels in Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Wyoming, Ohio, Alaska, Texas and several other states.
It also poses a challenge to candidates who determine it would be best for them if Trump focused his attention elsewhere, but do not wish to run afoul of the former President by asking.
“They will have to make a strong case and it can’t be, ‘I just don’t want him around,’ because at the end of the day many of these guys are running on his policies,” said the person close to Trump, adding that it’s “a delicate balance that certain candidates are going to have to dance, but the whole point of elections is to be strategic and to win, not to appease a former President.”
Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich disagreed that some Republicans will want to keep their distance, claiming that those who have shunned the former President did so to their own detriment.
“Every Republican in the Country knows President Trump’s endorsement is key to victory,” Budowich told CNN, adding that defeated New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli “would have benefitted from a Trump tele-rally the night before Election Day — instead, he proved Never Trump equals Never Elected.”
‘I may not want him around’
Some Republicans who spoke to CNN said the strategy is easier said than done. For one, they noted, there are several states in which one or more GOP candidates may benefit from a high-profile Trump visit, while other candidates in the state will want to maintain distance from the former President to remain in good standing with certain voters. That could leave some Republican hopefuls with the awkward decision of whether to show up or stay home from a Trump rally in their backyard.
A former Trump official floated Arizona — a top target for Republicans this cycle as they look to regain control of the US Senate — as one example. The official invoked Arizona GOP Senate hopeful Blake Masters, a former aide to billionaire tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who is currently running in the Republican primary to unseat Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly. Last November, Kelly defeated incumbent Republican Sen. Martha McSally in a special election by more than 2 points while Trump lost the state to then-candidate Joe Biden by less than half a percentage point, according to CNN data.
“If I’m Blake Masters and I know Trump completely turns off suburban women, that’s going to be a decision where I weigh the pros and cons quite heavily. I may not want him around,” the ex-official said.
Masters campaign manager Amalia Halikias rejected that suggestion in a statement to CNN, saying he would be “honored” to receive any support from Trump. The former President has not yet endorsed a candidate in the state’s GOP Senate primary but was scheduled to attend a fundraiser for Masters at Mar-a-Lago on Wednesday.
“From what we see at our events, door knocking, and on the campaign trail, support for President Trump is sky-high in Arizona,” Halikias said, noting that Masters worked for Trump’s transition team in 2016, appeared at his July rally in Phoenix, and supported him in both 2016 and 2020.
But for every Republican candidate like Masters, who would prefer to bear hug Trump, veteran GOP strategist Rob Stutzman said there will be another who could suffer at the ballot box if they appear too cozy with the former President. For the sake of GOP efforts to retake both congressional chambers, Stutzman said the former President will have to keep a low profile in some races if he can bear it.
“It’s too soon to tell where those races will be, but there are several where this strategy might work,” Stutzman said, suggesting that if Republican Gov. Chris Sununu had made a run for Senate, as many in the party’s election apparatus had hoped he would, “he probably would have been saying we don’t want Trump in New Hampshire.” (Sununu announced this week that he would instead run for a fourth term as governor.)
Some of those around Trump have billed the “stay away strategy” as a move to preserve what the former President considers to be his sterling track record of endorsements. According to a tracker by Ballotpedia, 134 House and Senate candidates of the 172 Trump endorsed in 2020 won their general election contests last November, though many were incumbents with very little chance of losing.
That did not include Youngkin, a newcomer to the political scene, who won the Virginia GOP’s gubernatorial nomination without an endorsement from Trump in the primary. Once Youngkin transitioned to the general election against former Virginia Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, there were moments when Trump considered bucking an unspoken agreement between Youngkin’s camp and his team that he wouldn’t show up to campaign for the Republican nominee, according to two people familiar with the situation. One said the 45th President ultimately realized as the race tightened that if he came and Youngkin lost, he would likely be to blame.
“But if things played out like they did, he could go to an NRCC fundraiser and take claim for it a week later,” a Youngkin adviser said, referring to Trump’s Monday night appearance at a fundraiser for House Republicans’ campaign arm, where he claimed the MAGA movement single-handedly delivered Youngkin’s victory.
Budowich, the Trump spokesman, said the former President ultimately decided not to rally in Virginia because he didn’t need to in order to turn out his core supporters.
“Rallies serve a critical campaign purpose of educating voters on President Trump’s support of his endorsed candidates. However, in Virginia, Democrats from Terry McAuliffe to every outside group spent more than $30 million dollars ensuring every single voter knew that President Donald Trump endorsed Glenn Youngkin… and the MAGA voters turned out accordingly to elect Youngkin,” Budowich told CNN.
A second Youngkin adviser said the governor-elect’s team “worked hand in glove” with the former President’s political operation and blamed the media for “misplaying” the reasons for Trump’s absence from the race, noting that the governor-elect’s campaign adopted a blanket no-surrogate policy early on that kept other high-profile Republicans out of the state in addition to Trump. The day before Virginia’s gubernatorial election, Trump also disputed reports of a rift between him and Youngkin in a statement that blamed the media and “misleading advertisements” for attempts to ensure his “make America Great Again base will not show up to vote.”
“Glenn Youngkin is a former college basketball player, private equity executive, and is worth half a billion dollars. He’s a boss. He’s not a congressman running for Senate or a state senator running for Congress, so this was on our terms,” the Youngkin adviser said.
Policy trumps physical presence
Some Trump allies claim the outcome in Virginia wouldn’t have changed if Trump had shown up in the closing weeks of the race to rally for Youngkin, insisting that his support is always a net-positive for Republican candidates and that they would be foolish to reject it in any form next year.
“The Virginia suburban and rural voters who turned out did so because they support Trump and MAGA,” said Boris Epshteyn, a former special assistant to Trump.
Still, Trump aides say their boss is willing to be deferential to candidates when it comes to his level of involvement in key races as long as he feels their campaigns align with his “America First” policy agenda. And because Trump has already taken a keen interest in certain races — particularly those featuring Republicans who voted to impeach him in January such as Reps. Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio and Liz Cheney of Wyoming — one aide to the former President said he will likely have to forgo appearances in states or districts where he is welcomed, too, given scheduling restraints.
“He will always say to candidates, ‘Let me know if you want me to do something or not,'” the aide said. “That was the approach in Virginia and it worked and it will be the approach in 2022, as there are some candidates where having him show up will be super helpful and others where it won’t.”