More than a dozen onetime aides and advisers to former President Donald Trump have signed on to assist Republicans competing in statewide and federal contests across the country, in some cases setting up potential showdowns in the months to come as they work to cast their candidates as the most Trump-aligned figures in crowded races.
Candidates have tapped everyone from former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio to Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, one of the most recognizable duos in Trump World. In Ohio alone, according to a CNN analysis, six former Trump aides are already working privately and publicly to assist Cleveland car dealer-turned-GOP candidate Bernie Moreno and to recruit “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance, who is still weighing a campaign, in the Republican primary for outgoing Sen. Rob Portman’s seat.
The slew of campaign hires from the 45th President’s orbit come as Republican candidates in House, Senate and gubernatorial races try to claim the Trump mantle. They want to set themselves apart in crowded primaries or ingratiate themselves with the party’s grassroots supporters, who remain overwhelmingly loyal to the former President. Or, in the case of Alaska Senate candidate Kelly Tshibaka, who has enlisted former Trump campaign aides Justin Clark, Bill Stepien, Nick Trainer, and Tim Murtaugh in her bid to unseat incumbent GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski, they have taken an active role in the ex-President’s revenge-driven ploy to rid the Republican party of his critics.
“There is great benefit to any Republican candidate to hire campaign advisers who are simply more in touch with the mood of base voters than other consultants these days,” said one former Trump official who has nabbed contracts with a Senate and gubernatorial candidate.
Trump’s endorsement is not a guaranteed benefit, however. While the former President has publicly backed some candidates who are working with aides of his — such as Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, who is running for an open Senate seat in his state — he has declined to wade into other primary contests or races where people in his orbit are involved.
Trump’s influence spreads
As the 2022 midterm map takes shape, at least seven Senate races have seen the direct or indirect involvement of former Trump staffers — aides from the White House or his 2016 and 2020 campaigns who are either already employed by campaigns or quietly advising prospective candidates to run.
Some of these same Trump veterans have also joined gubernatorial campaigns in Virginia and Nebraska, where term-limited governors are retiring in 2021 and 2022, respectively. Line Drive Public Affairs, a consulting group run by former Trump campaign communications director Murtaugh, is assisting marketing executive Pete Snyder in Virginia’s GOP gubernatorial primary. Conway, Lewandowski and Bossie are advising Charles Herbster, a GOP mega-donor and Republican candidate for Nebraska governor.
“I don’t think there’s any consultant you can hire that is going to win the race for you, but I have a great team in Nebraska, and I wouldn’t undertake something like this that didn’t involve Corey, Kellyanne and Dave,” said Charles Herbster, a GOP mega-donor and Republican candidate for Nebraska governor.
In the California effort to recall Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, the high-profile candidacy of former Olympic decathlete and reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner has also attracted talent from deep inside Trump’s circle, from his digital guru Brad Parscale — who recently reemerged as an informal adviser to the former President’s post-White House operation after leaving his 2020 campaign last October — to former rapid response director Steven Cheung and Fabrizio, the Trump campaign pollster. Jenner is running as a Republican.
In Missouri, Cheung and Fabrizio are also advising Eric Greitens on his bid for the open US Senate seat following GOP Sen. Roy Blunt’s retirement. Greitens resigned as governor of Missouri in 2018 amid a sex scandal and ethics investigation that resulted in nearly $200,000 in fines. His campaign has also received help from former assistant White House communications director Boris Ephsteyn, who has been advising Greitens in an informal capacity, and Trump campaign fundraiser Kimberly Guilfoyle, who was officially added to the ex-governor’s campaign late last month and is the girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr.
Fabrizio’s polling firm is also affiliated with the reelection campaign of Sen. Rand Paul, who was endorsed by Trump in April shortly before former Democratic state lawmaker Charles Booker launched a bid to unseat the Kentucky Republican.
Two Senate races in Alabama and Ohio have offered a unique look at Trump staffers competing against one another while representing opposing Republican primary candidates — an occurrence that could emerge elsewhere as more GOP hopefuls enter Senate contests in states like North Carolina and Pennsylvania, where several allies of the former president are currently weighing bids.
Though Vance has not yet launched a campaign for Senate in Ohio, a well-funded super PAC seeking to recruit him as a candidate has been working closely with former Trump aides Bryan Lanza, Andy Sarabian and Fabrizio. If he enters the primary, the conservative writer would be competing against Moreno, whose campaign employs Conway and his daughter, former Trump campaign aide Emily Moreno, if he enters the primary. His other competitors would include former Ohio GOP Chairwoman Jane Timken and former Ohio state treasurer Josh Mandel.
Trump has yet to endorse a Senate candidate in the Buckeye State and some observers say the process of nabbing his support could be made complicated by the presence of his former aides.
“Trump is loyal to himself before anyone else and there’s not a de facto ‘hire this person and you get the Trump endorsement’ rule. That definitely becomes more true in a crowded primary where you have multiple Trump aides working for different candidates,” said longtime GOP strategist Doug Heye.
Mutual benefits and potential risks
For aides with limited political experience predating the Trump era, consulting opportunities for novice candidates has provided a lucrative landing pad in a job market that has otherwise been difficult for those who served on the former President’s reelection campaign or inside the White House.
One Trump campaign veteran, who declined to be quoted for this story, boasted of making more than $20,000 in one month as a consultant on a Senate campaign. This person and other Trump aides involved with Republican campaigns were careful to note that they typically inform clients up front that their relationship with the ex-President does not guarantee an endorsement — especially in primaries featuring several Trump-aligned candidates.
The process of nabbing Trump’s endorsement has proved arbitrary in the months since the former President left office, with aides telling CNN that he will often change his opinion of a candidate from one day to the next depending on who he’s talking to or how a sit-down meeting with the candidate went. There is also no uniform approach for former Trump officials running for office, with the ex-President enthusiastically supporting some and withholding his support from others.
For instance, Trump was quick to endorse former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders after she announced a run for the Arkansas governor’s mansion, but has not yet thrown his weight behind Catalina Lauf, a former Commerce Department appointee who is challenging incumbent GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger in Illinois’ 16th congressional district. Nor did Trump endorse Brian Harrison, a former Health and Human Services official in his administration, ahead of last week’s special election for Texas’ 6th congressional district, which drew 23 candidates. Trump ultimately supported Susan Wright, the widow of Rep. Ron Wright, who died of Covid-19 in February and previously occupied the seat. Wright and Republican state Rep. Jake Ellzey ultimately advanced to a runoff contest that has yet to be scheduled but cannot occur prior to May 24, according to Texas election laws.
Trump aides claim their involvement in these races can help propel candidates over the finish line in primaries, and later ensure their success against Democratic candidates, by coaching their clients on how to drive GOP turnout or broaden their appeal beyond the MAGA base. In traditional battleground states like Ohio and North Carolina, Senate candidates are likely to have to appeal to a range of voters outside of their party’s respective bases in order to clinch a victory.
That raises the question of whether the involvement of former Trump aides could become a political liability for certain candidates, particularly those like Jenner, who is running for governor in a state that rejected Trump by a 29-point margin in the 2020 presidential election.
Several aides who spoke with CNN dismissed the idea that their presence could present challenges for candidates who may seek their help.
“At the end of the day, voters aren’t focused on who is blocking and tackling for a candidate, they care about the quarterback,” said Lanza, the former Trump campaign adviser.