Donald Trump is testing a strategy that may soon become a necessity as his legal woes mount: relying on Republican surrogates to make his case to voters.
Polls show Trump as the front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination, but he’s mired in four criminal cases that could take him off the campaign trail starting in late January or February when candidates traditionally make their closing arguments to voters. That means Trump, the most popular figure in the Republican party, may well have to rely on the star power of key stand-ins to make final pitches to voters.
While the candidate himself was a no-show at prominent events, including the first Republican primary debate and several time-honored events in Iowa, he left loyalists to fill the void.
U.S. Representative Byron Donalds donned a blue apron as he flipped burgers with Representative Matt Gaetz at the Iowa State Fair. Kari Lake, a staunch Trump supporter who narrowly lost last year’s Arizona gubernatorial election, milked cows.
Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle were dispatched to the Milwaukee debate to chat up the media at the debate, but were denied entrance to mingle with reporters.
The approach has dual advantages for the former president. He can cement his status as a de-facto incumbent by not deigning to appear alongside the other contenders, and also lay the groundwork for a moment when he’s in the courtroom instead of working the stage at a rally.
While it’s commonplace to include endorsers and friendly politicians in campaign events, strategists have said that the number and national name recognition of Trump’s surrogates are novel compared with his previous campaigns.
Still, some cautioned that the approach has risks: Most notably, that Trump’s star power is unmatched in the universe of Republican lawmakers and pundits, and he may suffer in early voting states where face-to-face retail politics is known to sway voters — which candidates like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis have capitalized on.
“Those guys aren’t perceived to be the leaders of the party. Kevin McCarthy is not standing up for the former president, Leader McConnell isn’t standing up for the former president,” said Lisa Miller, a former Republican National Committee spokeswoman. “But I think the people who are with Trump are with Trump regardless of these indictments.”
Bob Vander Plaats, an influential Republican operative in Iowa and the CEO of the Family Leader, a social conservative organization, argued that the strategy would not fare well in early voting states where retail politics are an especially important factor to voters.
Earlier this year, Trump declined an invitation to attend an event hosted by Vander Plaats due to scheduling conflicts, but offered to send Senator JD Vance in his place, Vander Plaats said.
“History would say the advantage goes to the person who shows up,” Vander Plaats said. “Iowa is a retail state. They want to shake hands and ask candidates questions. The more they hear and see from other candidates, the more they are drawn to them.”
According to several of the legislators – which also include state representatives, former acting attorney general Matt Whitaker, U.S. Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene, Michael Waltz, Carlos Giménez and Anna Paulina Luna – their surrogacy arose in informal conversations with Trump. Some had offered to appear on the trail and his campaign followed up with opportunities.
“Some of our surrogates are the most passionate people in the party and in the movement. Using them as megaphones, there’s no bigger asset than that,” Trump spokesman Steven Cheung said. “We have a wide range of people that cover a lot of different areas.”
Giménez has advocated for Trump among Hispanic voters, Cheung said. Donalds has focused on Black male voters.
“At the end of the day, campaigns are about the individual, but it’s more than just the candidate. It’s the people that come in and support,” Donalds said.
Donalds has sought to reach more moderate voters in key states like Arizona and Georgia, and is among the most frequent Trump allies to do interviews or attend cattle-call events where voters – and reporters – tend to congregate. Trump has rewarded Donalds with shoutouts during rallies, fanning speculation that he could be a potential running mate.
Asked if he would want the role, Donalds said “Who wouldn’t,” but said his focus was to ensure Trump is the Republican nominee. Meantime, Waltz has focused on informing veterans on Trump’s record working with the military and on foreign policy. Lake has reached out to mothers on education and social issues.
Others like Gaetz and Vance have focused on reaching blue-collar workers.
“We have to have a real high turnout across the country in blue-collar areas, places where folks wear their name on their shirts and get their hands dirty for a living,” Gaetz said in an interview at the first debate.
“And I fight for those folks each and every day in Congress and I want to give them every reason to get out there and support the president who fights so hard for them,” he said.