Members of the far-right House Freedom Caucus were Donald Trump’s most reliable supporters and loudest defenders in Congress during his presidency.
But many are holding off on an official endorsement of his third White House bid — at least for now.
These aren’t just any Republican members of Congress. Of the roughly three dozen current Freedom Caucus members who were in office Jan. 6, 2021, all but two voted to overturn the election results in the hopes of keeping Trump in power after the attack on the U.S. Capitol — easily the highest percentage of any congressional caucus. Yet, of those members, just 12 have so far announced support for Trump’s re-election.
Meanwhile, a handful of Freedom Caucus members, including Reps. Bob Good, R-Va., Andy Ogles, R-Tenn., Ken Buck, R-Colo., Andy Harris, R-Md., and Chip Roy, R-Texas, were seen entering a Capitol Hill event Tuesday with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a founding member of the caucus. Buck and Roy were the two current members who voted against overturning the election results Jan. 6, and Roy has endorsed DeSantis, who has yet to enter the race.
While Trump has improved his position in early primary polls and is starting to rack up more lawmaker endorsements, particularly in DeSantis’ backyard, the fact that so many Freedom Caucus members are still on the sidelines is notable, even this early in the GOP nominating contest. It reflects lingering Republican uncertainty over the best candidate to take on President Joe Biden, even as Trump remains popular with the conservative base.
“I think a lot of them are where many GOP voters are,” former Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a Freedom Caucus co-founder who also served a variety of roles in Trump’s administration, said of the current members. “They loved his policies — and they cannot stand the Biden administration — but they are tired of all the BS and the baggage that comes with Trump.”
“They won’t endorse him; they won’t oppose him,” continued Mulvaney, who has been openly critical of his former boss. “They just sort of want him to go away. And, most importantly, they think he is probably the only Republican who could lose to Biden.”
Multiple members of the Freedom Caucus who spoke with NBC News kept their cards close.
“I think it’s prudent to know what the field of candidates looks like on both sides and what their priorities are before voicing my support,” said Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., who endorsed Trump in 2016 and 2020. “My intention is not to endorse anyone until 2024."
Rep. Ben Cline, R-Va., also said he has no plans to endorse anytime soon.
“I’m watching the field develop,” he said. Asked if he’s feeling any pressure from the Trump team, he said he couldn’t comment about any contact he’s had with the campaign.
Cline and DesJarlais are among roughly two dozen current Freedom Caucus members who have yet to weigh in on the primary race (the group does not keep a public list of its members). Included in that group are key Trump allies like Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., the Freedom Caucus chairman who went to extraordinary lengths to keep Trump in office following his 2020 election defeat.
Yet, among members who have endorsed candidates to this point, Trump is far and away the favorite. Roughly one-third of the ultraconservative House group, including allies such as Reps. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., Anna Paulina Luna, R-Fla., and Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., have publicly backed Trump’s candidacy. Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., a top DeSantis target, jolted the primary race by backing Trump.
Speaking with NBC News, Greene said she has been pushing her peers to join up with Trump.
“Of course. I’m probably one of the most pro-Trump member of Congress here, unapologetically,” she said. “I think he did a great job for the country and his four-year administration, and I’ll be asking everybody to support President Trump. And Ron DeSantis, he hasn’t declared he’s running for president yet. It seems like he’s going to — at least everybody says he is, except him.”
One House conservative, a former Freedom Caucus member who asked to remain anonymous to describe the pressure he is facing to endorse, said he’s been bombarded by text messages from the Trump team.
“It’s inevitable that I’m just going to be confronted and asked,” the lawmaker said. “I just think it’s too early. We don’t know how it’s all going to shake out. I’m expecting calls from both camps at any moment, and I’m just trying to keep my head down.”
Some additional Freedom Caucus members could soon come out to back the former president, as well. Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., said in an email that he spent time with the former president at his Mar-a-Lago resort earlier this month and discussed Trump’s bid, adding, “he knows where I stand regarding the presidential race.”
“I am an America First and Make America Great Again policy advocate and believe we need a President who will drive that agenda,” he said.
But the silence among other members of the caucus, even at this early stage of the race, is drawing notice.
“You notice the Freedom Caucus members are not endorsing Trump at this point in time,” said former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican and NBC News contributor. “Here are all these Freedom Caucus members who wrapped themselves around Trump and now that he’s declared for president, they haven’t officially endorsed him.”
“So you’ve got this weird dynamic where the Freedom Caucus publicly raises money off Trump’s name and constantly brings up Trump being unfairly treated, but they won’t endorse him,” he added. “Most of them got elected because of Trump.”
McCrory attributed their hesitation to get behind the former president this cycle to the Club for Growth, which spent heavily against McCrory in his Senate primary last year, suggesting that the right-wing, anti-tax group is “going toward a former Freedom Caucus member called DeSantis” after having a falling-out with Trump this past cycle.
“The only presidential candidate we have a problem with” a member of Congress endorsing “is Joe Biden,” David McIntosh, who heads The Club for Growth PAC, said in a statement.
While other Freedom Caucus members hold their fire, only Roy and Ralph Norman, R-S.C. — who is backing Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations — have come out for non-Trump candidates. That could change when DeSantis, who is widely expected to enter the race within the next couple of months, nears his decision or makes it official.
“Donald Trump had nearly unanimous Republican support in 2020 and every voice that isn’t behind him now is a defection,” Erin Perrine, a spokesperson for the pro-DeSantis Never Back Down PAC, said in a statement. “Trump only has ground to lose on endorsements while Governor DeSantis, who isn’t even an announced candidate, continues to have a growing base of support.”
Norman, who said that he spoke with Trump before endorsing Haley and that the former president was “very nice” and “very benevolent” about it, said there’s still so much time for the campaign to shake out. Case in point: In the 2016 primary, Trump was still two months from announcing his bid at this point in the cycle. He added the party is “so lucky and blessed to have a series of candidates who all do pretty much the policies of Donald Trump.”
With candidates and potential candidates up and down the ballot embracing Trump’s policy agenda, the differentiator might just be picking who is best able to defeat Biden.
“They’re all pretty much in lockstep” on policy, Norman added of the GOP field, adding that members are considering “who can beat Joe Biden — and it shouldn’t be that hard to beat Joe Biden with his track record.”
“If the conservatives don’t win the 2024 elections … then we’ve pretty much had it as a free republic,” he said. ”That weighs on all of us.”
Some of the holding out may be strategic — either members holding out for some sort of benefit or a campaign holding back an endorsement so it can release it with maximum impact. Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung told NBC News earlier this week that the campaign is “strategically rolling out endorsements to coincide with events that we put on.”
“There’s a strategic way to do it to get the most bang out of your buck,” he added. “We’re being very cognizant of that; we’re being very deliberate. There’s a plan for all of this.”
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va., who has endorsed Trump already this cycle and has the backing of The Club for Growth in his Senate bid, said he expects more of his Freedom Caucus colleagues to soon endorse Trump.
“There’s the old-fashioned saying that people like to be asked — asked, and then sometimes ask for something in return,” he said. “Like in my case, I’d love an endorsement. Some folks might have tough primaries and would like his support. But I’m really focused on my race, obviously.”