Trump encourages Daines to jump into Senate GOP leader race

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Former President Donald Trump is encouraging Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) to run for GOP leader — a move that could significantly shake up the race to succeed Mitch McConnell later this year.

The current chair of Senate Republicans’ campaign arm indicated to Trump that he appreciates Trump’s encouragement but is focused on winning back the Senate majority this fall, according to a person familiar with the conversation who was granted anonymity to speak candidly.

In a brief interview on Thursday, Daines said he’d “thanked” Trump for the encouragement and didn’t rule out a run for leader. But he shied away from making any firm commitments.

“I told [Trump] the most important thing I can do this moment is to make sure we have a Senate majority in November,” Daines said.

Trump’s encouragement of a Daines run came before McConnell announced his plans to step down from the leader position, according to a second person familiar with the call.

Over the next few months, Trump is likely to play an outsized role in selecting a new Republican leader. He still holds significant influence over the Senate Republican conference as the party’s likely presidential nominee, sway that will only climb if he wins in November.

Still, the election to lead GOP senators is a secret ballot, which could temper Trump’s influence over the contest.

Other Senate Republicans say leadership candidates will likely face some questions over their ability to work with Trump. Some, like Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), have been at odds with Trump at times since he left the presidency.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) also may run for leader but has not yet announced; he could also run for the No. 2 job of whip.

All of the so-called “Three Johns” have endorsed Trump. But Daines endorsed in April last year — significantly ahead of any of his John-named competition.

“It’s important that whoever is the Republican leader has a relationship with the Republican president,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) told reporters on Thursday. Scott’s name has also been floated for potential future leadership, but he’d face major challenges without Trump’s backing.

But Trump’s stamp of approval isn’t a be-all-end-all. Some Senate Republicans say the decision sits only with elected members of the chamber.

“I just don’t think his opinion makes any difference. And that’s not to discount how formidable he is about his views. It’s just to say ‘Hey, man, here’s who we think is best reflective of the Senate,’” said Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), who is supporting Barrasso for leader. “Daines is great. But I don’t know if that will matter to Daines or anyone else.”

Daines and Trump have worked together this campaign cycle in strategically picking candidates for NRSC to endorse in the primaries. After Senate Republicans failed to flip any seats last cycle, some argued Trump had endorsed primary candidates that weren’t capable of winning general elections.

Daines has sought to curb that this cycle, with NRSC backing candidates they think can win both primaries and general elections.

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