Just four weeks from the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump is scrambling to shore up support for his presidential nomination by strengthening ties with governors in states where Republican senators have criticized his campaign.
Trump has met in recent days with several governors presiding over states where senators have been outspoken in their recent criticism of the presumptive nominee, including Arizona’s Doug Ducey, Tennessee’s Bill Haslam, and Oklahoma’s Mary Fallin.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a leading Trump ally, said he orchestrated a meeting after Haslam, his successor as head of the Republican Governors Association, made an inquiry. Ducey, Haslam, and Fallin all serve on RGA’s 10-governor executive committee.
Fallin, who has formally endorsed Trump, told Bloomberg Politics on Thursday that his outreach would help counter deteriorating support among members of Congress.
“I think it will help him,” she said. “Any time there’s a conversation with elected officials it’s a good thing, for the party and for the nominee.”
Several officials working on Trump's campaign say solid support from governors could allow him to more convincingly dismiss his congressional skeptics as part of the same Washington establishment that he frequently rails against.
The meeting between Trump and Republican governors at Trump Tower in Manhattan earlier this week included Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, who—like Ducey—has pledged to support the nominee, and Phil Bryant of Mississippi, who endorsed Trump in May. A sixth governor in attendance, Nathan Deal of Georgia, co-hosted a recent fundraiser for Trump, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Tennessean reported that Haslam was not yet ready to endorse Trump after the meeting.
The governors also hold the keys to political networks that can raise campaign cash and boost turnout on Election Day, and they can serve as local advocates for Trump’s campaign. In the nearer term, many of them also hold sway over Republican delegates who will be casting votes for the nominee at the convention in July. For example, Arkansas’ delegation includes elected officials who need Hutchinson’s support to pass laws through the legislature.
“I don't take any official role at all,” Christie said at a news conference on Thursday. “But Bill Haslam was my successor as RGA chair and we’re good friends.”
In another example of outreach to governors, Trump spoke with Governor Pat McCrory of North Carolina at a fundraiser in Greensboro, according to a person familiar with the meeting. Senator Richard Burr has backed Trump's candidacy as a way to ensure the nomination of conservative Supreme Court justices and has defended the presumptive nominee's call to temporarily ban Muslim immigration to the U.S. Senator Thom Tillis has called on Republicans to unite behind the presumptive nominee.
Trump’s response to the Orlando massacre on Sunday sparked a backlash in Washington, where Republican senators began losing hope that he was willing to dial back the incendiary style that fueled his primary victories and offer a broader appeal for general-election voters.
Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, who has been a consistent Trump critic, described as “disgusting” the presumptive nominee's response to Orlando. Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee told reporters that “we don't have a nominee.”
The criticism in Washington has reverberated across the party.
“I would consider it a five-alarm fire,” said Holland Redfield, a Republican National Committeeman from the Virgin Islands.
“He was a populist liberal a year ago, he's a populist conservative today, and many of us are worried where he's going to be tomorrow,” Saul Anuzis, a Republican convention delegate from Michigan and former RNC committeeman, said about Trump.
While Trump was attacking a federal judge’s Mexican ancestry earlier this month involving cases against Trump University, Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma said he did not “like this type of rhetoric.” He also pledged to support the GOP nominee.
The Trump campaign has also taken steps to improve tense relations with the Republican National Committee. Chairman Reince Priebus, who is accompanying Trump on his swing through Texas on Thursday, tweeted that reports of discord between the two sides are “pure fiction.”
About two weeks ago, senior Trump campaign officials say they began having daily calls with RNC communications director Sean Spicer and other party officials to discuss daily messaging strategies. The RNC is also providing the bones of Trump’s campaign-finance operation and the bulk of its data operation.
Inside the campaign, Trump hired a veteran operative as national political director this month (after a rocky parting with his previous director), and is starting to staff up in battleground states, including Eric Branstad to run the Iowa campaign.
“The biggest things that need to play out still is that he has to put forward his vice-presidential pick, tell us who he's going to surround himself with in his Cabinet, and can we trust him on some conservative, constitutional, pro-family issues?” said Bob Vander Plaats, a conservative organizer in Iowa. “We have until November to make up our minds. But obviously the sooner the better for Mr. Trump.”
Asked last week what he’d accomplished in the five-week head start he had on Democrat Hillary Clinton as the presumptive nominee, Trump said polls showed the two neck-and-neck and cited the “consolidation” of his staff. New national polls this week, including one from Bloomberg Politics, showed Trump trailing Clinton by double digits.
“We’ve got some great people, we’re putting on some really good people,” Trump said in the interview last week. “One of the things I’m very proud of is that I had a smaller staff than anybody else, and yet I see the press—a lot of the press—views that as a negative, not a positive. I mean, in business you’d view that as a positive.”
Other GOP leaders said it's time to stop the hand-wringing.
“Trump will be fine,” said Florida businessman Marc Goldman, who backed Scott Walker, then Marco Rubio, for president. “The fact that the Democrats have nominated a candidate that's under criminal investigation is far more troubling than the fact that Trump speaks his mind.”
Goldman, a board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said it’s a testament to the GOP that there’s “no fear in speaking freely and openly about Trump,” while the Democrats “have no one with anything negative to say about a corrupt, proven liar, hypocrite, who has jeopardized national security.”
As meetings happen behind the scenes, Trump is not changing his tune on the stump. In recent appearances, he frequently pokes fun of his former opponent Jeb Bush. In Atlanta on Wednesday, he offered a suggestion to his conservative critics: “Be quiet.”
—With assistance from Terrence Dopp.