The 2024 Republican presidential primary is already picking up as former President Donald Trump works to shore up his support in the country’s biggest red state — and as his rivals work to emerge from his shadow and make their own inroads in Texas.
After an underwhelming start to his 2024 campaign, Trump’s polling numbers have bounced back in Texas, where he has expanded his support within the state’s congressional delegation to corral a majority of GOP House members.
The latest endorsement came Tuesday from U.S. Rep. Lance Gooden of Terrell, who chose to back Trump in dramatic fashion — announcing it moments after leaving a reception with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Capitol Hill.
“I love Donald Trump, but I wasn’t just going to endorse him out of loyalty. I wanted to do my due diligence for this next time around,” Gooden explained in a TV interview afterward. “As I left, I thought, you know, there’s no reason to keep waiting to get on board with who I think is the next winner and our next president, and that gentleman is Donald J. Trump.”
Gooden became the 13th of the Texas delegation’s 25 House Republicans to back the former president.
Both nationally and in Texas, Trump has seen his stock rise in recent weeks as Republicans rallied around him after his indictment by a Manhattan grand jury in a 2016 hush-money scheme. Even Texas Republicans who have not endorsed Trump — like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. Greg Abbott — condemned the indictment.
A conservative pollster who regularly tracks the presidential primary in Texas found that Trump’s lead over DeSantis doubled from March to April.
Yet many Texas GOP officials are still keeping their powder dry, declining to endorse before DeSantis formally launches his campaign, or are planning to stay out of the primary altogether.
Multiple Texas Republicans got face time with DeSantis during Tuesday’s reception for members of Congress that Gooden attended. The hosts included U.S. Rep. Chip Roy of Austin, who became the first member of Congress to endorse DeSantis last month and remains DeSantis’ highest-profile supporter in Texas.
Other attendees included U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who has said he would like to “see some new blood” in the primary.
Speaking with Texas reporters Thursday, Cornyn reiterated that he does not plan to endorse in the primary but said, “I am interested in seeing that the best candidates run, and I think Mr. DeSantis is certainly in that category, and I wished him well.”
Reflecting concerns among some Republicans over Trump’s comeback bid, Cornyn also said the party needs to nominate “somebody who can win the general election in 2024.”
“To me, electability is the paramount issue in the Republican primary for president,” he said.
Former U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, is pressing the same argument as he considers a long-shot presidential campaign. Hurd — who won three straight campaigns in the 23rd District when it was a national battleground — is returning to Iowa this weekend with a message of tough love for fellow Republicans.
“The Republican Party’s record speaks for itself,” Hurd said in a statement Thursday, noting the GOP “lost the popular vote in 2016, the House in 2018, and the Senate and the presidency in 2020.”
“It’s time for us to take a hard look at ourselves and figure out what we need to do to start actually winning again nationwide,” he said.
Hurd will be among the speakers Saturday at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition’s 23rd Annual Spring Kick-Off. Trump is also in the lineup.
Abbott and Cruz were invited to speak at the event but will not attend. Abbott has been turning down similar invitations during Texas’ legislative session, which ends in late May, and Cruz has focused on his reelection campaign in recent months, signaling that his well-known ambitions to run again for president are on hold for now.
While Abbott has kept open the possibility of a White House run, such speculation has quieted as Trump has bounced back nationally, raising the potential of an intriguing Trump-DeSantis showdown in the Texas primary. The state is an enticing prize for any candidate, with its relatively early primary date — March 5, 2024 — and massive trove of delegates.
Trump puts early emphasis on Texas
Trump’s campaign is well aware of the state’s importance.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who chaired both of Trump’s previous campaigns in Texas, has been preoccupied with the legislative session but continues to have the former president’s ear. Speaking at Trump’s March rally in Waco, Patrick blasted those who tied the event to the deadly Branch Davidian standoff in 1993, saying Trump was following his recommendation to hold the rally there.
In the week before the rally, as speculation grew that Trump was facing indictment, his campaign made a push to corral more endorsements from Texas Republicans in the U.S. House. U.S. Rep. Ronny Jackson of Amarillo, who was Trump’s doctor in the White House, took the lead inside the delegation, according to a person close to him.
The effort paid dividends as his campaign prefaced the Waco rally by announcing its “Texas Leadership Team” featuring eight new congressional endorsers. Fresh supporters also included Land Commissioner Dawn Buckingham and former U.S. Rep. Mayra Flores of Los Indios.
The endorsements were less noteworthy to Trump-skeptical Republicans in the state, including Katrina Pierson, a former Trump campaign spokesperson from North Texas who is not yet formally supporting anyone for 2024.
“When you have all the congressmen circling the wagons — the swamp protects the swamp,” Pierson said in an interview Thursday. “To me, it’s just an indication of who the establishment candidate is, going into the primary.”
When asked if the former president was courting his support, Cornyn, the state’s senior senator, said he has not had “much contact” with Trump, though he added that a Trump aide texts campaign updates “pretty much on a daily basis.”
DeSantis’ second Texas trip in 2 months
DeSantis is returning to Texas this weekend to headline an awards ceremony Saturday in Austin hosted by the Cicero Institute.
The policy group is the brainchild of Joe Lonsdale, a technology entrepreneur and investor who moved his venture capital firm from Silicon Valley to Austin in 2020. He has become increasingly involved in state and local politics, serving as a top donor to the successful 2021 effort to reinstate Austin’s homeless camping ban.
Lonsdale did not respond to a request for comment about the DeSantis event, but on Twitter he has disputed suggestions that it indicates political support for DeSantis. The event is not a fundraiser, he emphasized, adding that DeSantis was a “long-planned” speaker — one of several figures to be honored for standing up “to special interests for the common good.”
The trip appears to be lower-profile than DeSantis’ last visit in early March to headline county GOP fundraising dinners in Dallas and Houston. DeSantis’ team has not said whether he is appearing anywhere else in Texas beyond the Austin awards ceremony.
While DeSantis has not yet formally announced a campaign, a pro-DeSantis super PAC called Never Back Down has been functioning as a campaign-in-waiting. It is stocked with alums of Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, including then-campaign manager Jeff Roe, who has remained a close political adviser to Cruz.
The super PAC touched on Texas when it announced Wednesday the formation of 27 “Students for DeSantis” college chapters across the country, including one at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.
As the political world waits for his official presidential campaign launch, DeSantis has cultivated some intriguing — and generous — donors from Texas. Two of last month’s top contributors to his Florida political committee were both from Texas: an entity called Rural Route 3 Holdings LP, which gave $1 million, and a Houston doctor named Clive Fields, who gave $500,000.
Rural Route 3 Holdings also contributed $250,000 to DeSantis last year.
Public records tie the entity to Adam Sinn, an energy trader from Houston who is something of a political enigma. Records show he has not made a campaign contribution at the state level over the past decade, and only minimally at the federal level.
Sinn declined to comment through a representative, while Fields did not respond to a request for comment.
Nikki Haley has been a regular Texas presence
Beyond Trump and DeSantis, Nikki Haley has been the biggest factor in Texas among GOP presidential hopefuls.
The former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador has already held multiple fundraisers here and spent a day touring the border region with U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales of San Antonio earlier this month. Her campaign bragged that she was the first 2024 contender to visit the Texas-Mexico border.
Gonzales himself is the source of some intrigue in the primary. After Trump launched his 2024 bid in November, Gonzales sent a supportive tweet that Gonzales’ campaign called an endorsement. Even so, Gonzales has welcomed any presidential candidate to travel the border with him, and he demurred last month when a TV interviewer asked if he was open to backing other contenders.
“I haven’t met with President Trump yet,” Gonzales said. “I look forward to meeting with President Trump.”
Haley lavished praise on Gonzales during her trip, at one point calling him the “border king” and a leader who should be in “every single immigration conversation in Congress.” It was an attention-grabbing comment given Gonzales’ firm opposition to a border-security proposal by fellow Republican Roy, one of several positions that prompted the Texas GOP to censure Gonzales last month.
As for Haley’s Texas footprint, she has held 12 fundraisers in five cities since launching her White House bid in mid-February, according to her campaign, which said Texas was among her top three fundraising states in the first six weeks of her candidacy.
Former Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price attended one of Haley’s fundraisers and posted later on social media that Haley was “impressive!” Haley’s first campaign finance report also featured several prominent Texas donors, including John Nau, Ray Hunt, Nancy Kinder, Mindy Hildebrand, Arun Agarwal and Fred Zeidman.
Zeidman, a Houston donor and a veteran of presidential fundraising, endorsed Haley last month along with two other board members of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
But in a sign that some donors may not be ready to commit to a single candidate, Haley also got checks from Fields — the six-figure donor to DeSantis’ Florida committee — and Doug Deason, a Dallasite who played a key role in bringing DeSantis to the city last month.
The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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