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The Knives Are Already Out in the Trump VP Race

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

Welcome to Trail Mix, your 2024 election sanity guide. See something interesting on the trail? Email me at jake.lahut@thedailybeast.com.

This week, we dig into the GOP's veep machinations and drama at the Republican National Committee.

WATCH YOUR BACK

As the race for the Republican presidential nomination cools down, the race to be Donald Trump’s running mate is heating up—with two top candidates for the vice presidential job already maneuvering against each other in the shadows of Trumpworld.

House GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-NY) and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) have both emerged as top contenders to be Trump’s vice president, and both appear to consider the other as a threat.

Elise Stefanik Takes Her VP Campaign to NH for Audience of One: Trump

A story that ran Friday evening in the now-defunct publication The Messenger cited six sources claiming Scott’s operation was shopping around opposition research on Stefanik. The dirt reportedly centered on Stefanik’s anti-Trump past, specifically her criticism of his stances on Medicare and Social Security in the 2016 race.

One of the key features of the opposition research was also a now-deleted Facebook post following the October 2016 release of the Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump brags about grabbing women “by the pussy.” Stefanik called Trump’s comments at the time “inappropriate, offensive” and “just wrong.”

After the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, Stefanik also expressed hope that Trump’s “apology is sincere.” (Stefanik has also since removed that press release with her Jan. 6 statement from her website.)

Stefanik’s anti-Trump past isn’t exactly a new revelation. And many operatives have been passing around documents detailing her previous comments and less-than-enthusiastic reactions to Trump in 2016. One of the outlets which received a dossier on the congresswoman was, in fact, The Daily Beast—only it didn’t come from Scott.

It’s of course possible Scott used loosely affiliated surrogates to spread opposition research—or that his team was spreading similar documents. Notably, Scott’s team pushed back heavily on The Messenger’s story, calling it “not only patently false, but insulting.”

But there’s another possibility: Stefanik’s team got out in front of a bad story and spun it against Scott.

While The Daily Beast cannot confirm who spread the story that Scott was pushing opposition research on Stefanik—and our source would only allow us to say we didn’t get our document from Scott’s team—it’s clear there was one main beneficiary of such a story: Stefanik.

The ambitious New York Republican's reputation for hardball, however, is perhaps one of the reasons Trump likes her so much.

“Stefanik and her team’s willingness to throw others under the bus, or pitch oppo, or go after people to try and elevate her is well-known,” a former House GOP leadership staffer said, requesting anonymity to speak candidly about the behind-the-scenes machinations. “And I think it’s quite likely that’s playing out in the veepstakes here.”

Trump and Stefanik

Donald Trump greets Rep. Elise Stefanik during a campaign event in Concord, New Hampshire, on January 19, 2024.

Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

The former president was recently overheard at Mar-a-Lago conspicuously praising Stefanik when one dinner-attendee suggested her as VP. “She’s a killer,” Trump said, according to NBC News.

The need for Trump’s No. 2 to be “a killer” was a recurring theme among more than a half-dozen Republicans in Trump’s orbit, who spoke to The Daily Beast about the private VP conversations on the condition of anonymity.

“Can people angle that way to show they can be a killer for Trump?” another Trump-aligned GOP strategist asked.

These Republicans generally brought up the same set of names as top contenders. Scott, Stefanik, Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH) and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem—all of them, they said, were at the head of the pack.

Some also mentioned the former Trump aide turned Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, as well as the possibility of more unconventional picks, like former Fox News host Tucker Carlson or maybe even a figure from the business world.

But the vice presidential speculation accelerated immediately after Trump effectively locked up the GOP nomination with his New Hampshire primary victory last month. Chatter had already revved up after Iowa’s caucus, when Trump trotted former rivals turned endorsers—Scott, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Doug Burgum—onstage at his rallies as if he were entertaining mini-auditions.

With Trump set to steamroll his last remaining rival, Nikki Haley, in South Carolina and beyond, the VP drama could soon become the main event in a GOP primary that has become a Trump coronation—if it isn’t already, judging by the sniping between rival camps.

J.D. Vance Ignores Trump’s Pledge to Be a ‘Day One’ Dictator

The process to select a No. 2 for Trump will be far different in 2024 than it was in 2016, however. Rather than judging the veep field on traditional metrics—such as whether their home state offers any Electoral College upside or if they can add a key demographic to the coalition—Trumpworld is focused on loyalty above all else.

Perhaps curiously, that fixation does not cut against Stefanik and Vance, both of whom—but particularly Vance—were vocally critical of Trump in the past. (Vance’s declaration in a 2016 interview, “I’m a never Trump guy,” ran in countless attack ads during the 2022 GOP primary.)

For Stefanik and Vance, their initial skepticism of Trump around the 2016 election is both a point of contention and, perhaps counterintuitively, a potential strength in the VP considerations.

“There’s nobody you can trust more than a devoted convert,” the Trump-aligned strategist told The Daily Beast.

Vance has particularly impressed the former president on that front. “He’s Ivy League, he’s tall, decent-looking guy, he’s combative. He looks strong, he looks tough. That’s what Trump likes,” the strategist said. “Good school, tough, looks the part. In my book, he’s the frontrunner.”

At the top level of the Trump campaign, officials are aware of Stefanik’s past statements, but the New York congresswoman appears to remain in good standing, almost as if there’s an expiration date for some past criticism of the boss.

“We certainly appreciate the efforts that the congresswoman has gone to serving as a great surrogate for President Trump,” a senior Trump adviser told The Daily Beast when asked about Stefanik’s past comments.

Another source close to the Trump campaign went to bat for Stefanik, replying “Nobody cares!” when asked about the knives coming out against her. “President Trump knows more what it’s like to change your views, no one believes that Stefanik is wedded to her beliefs from when she was a Girl Scout.”

Still, Republicans in Trumpworld who spoke with The Daily Beast described “a lot of heat” around veep-related stories in the press, though the Trump-aligned GOP strategist added a caveat. For all the legal peril and other liabilities around Trump, the VP chatter reinforces his status as the frontrunner, and the perception of the GOP primary being over.

Not everyone in the Trump camp loves the jockeying, however.

“I do think the Trump campaign is trying to tamp down that this isn’t in their interests, and it needs to stop,” the first Trumpworld operative said of the VP jockeying spilling over into public view. “These people that are engaging in this, they don’t understand MAGA and the breadth and scope of what the deal is here. They’re on the outside looking in.”

Liz Cheney Produces Elise Stefanik’s Damning Jan. 6 Receipts

With Stefanik and Vance positioning themselves on the inside track, the influence campaign takes place between appearances on the campaign trail as surrogates for Trump, in “hostile interviews” they’ve recently done with mainstream TV networks, and, perhaps most importantly, among Mar-a-Lago members and people in the business community who Trump randomly polls on whom he should pick as his running mate.

Key advisers to persuade in the Trump campaign, according to the Republicans familiar with the discussions, are his senior advisers Susie Wiles and Brian Jack, longtime aide and campaign counsel Boris Epshteyn, and Trump’s adult sons, Eric and Don, Jr.

Those familiar with the VP discussions said they expect Trump to make a decision by June, even though Trump already claimed he made up his mind at a Jan. 10 Fox News town hall.

As much as Trump may value “a killer” and a VP candidate’s team perfecting the art of skullduggery, another golden rule looms over the backstage maneuvering: never outshine the master.

“You just get exposed if you play too close to the sun this early,” the Trump-aligned strategist said, “and it’s just a bad look for everybody.”

GRUMPY OLD PARTY

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel has made it through the party’s winter meeting in Las Vegas this week with her job—so far.

But all is not well in the ranks of the official GOP apparatus.

Compared to a year ago when McDaniel had to fend off a bitter challenge from lawyer and activist Harmeet Dhillon, “it’s probably worse for Ronna,” a source close to the RNC told The Daily Beast, requesting anonymity to discuss closed-door discussions at the party retreat.

Today, McDaniel faces some similar pressures. Steve Bannon, the highly influential MAGA media personality, has continued to call for McDaniel’s ouster, and members of the party base—ginned up by anti-establishment candidates and activists—continue to blame her for continued GOP election losses.

But something seems different this time, even if McDaniel likely leaves Las Vegas without any real challenge to her leadership.

Ronna McDaniel

RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel delivers remarks before the GOP presidential debate in Miami in November 2023.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

“This is the first time, out of all the times that I’ve heard bad stuff about her,” the Republican continued, “that now I’m wondering what is wrong there.”

The main problem is cash.

The RNC only has around $8 million on hand to start the year, a paltry sum compared to the Trump campaign’s $33 million. The Democratic National Committee, by comparison, has more than $22 million in cash on hand to start the year.

“Perhaps they were relying too much on Trump for raising money, because that seems to have gone south,” the RNC source said, attributing the downturn to Trump’s dominance of the small and mid-donor market.

Longtime donors are either on the Trump train, or they aren’t. And if they aren’t, they don’t feel comfortable giving money to the RNC. The party’s money woes and dip in donations have been well documented over the past two years, with the committee failing to fill their coffers beyond the roughly $9 million in cash on hand they had going into the fourth quarter in 2023.

The money woes have led donors to look elsewhere.

“I could think of 15 large donors that when I was finance chair I would call and they would always give me money,” the source close to the RNC said. “They haven’t given to the party in several years. Now they tell the new finance people that they’re only giving directly to candidates because we haven’t won anything for a while.”

For McDaniel to keep her job safe, she needs to clear one more hurdle on the final day of the retreat.

If the Friday morning meetings among the regional groups of committee members build up frustration within the membership, she could end up facing a motion challenging her for the seat.

Trump’s Humiliation of the RNC Didn’t Catch Them by Surprise

As of Thursday afternoon, the members’ only meeting that day was described as “quite contentious.” At the key resolution committee meeting on Friday, any attempts on her job from a last minute challenger would need a majority vote to make it to the floor for all 168 members. That ”will be just as ugly as the regular session,” according to the source close to the RNC.

Still, “the end is near for [McDaniel] anyway,” the Republican said, given that once Trump locks up the nomination, he’ll be able to pick a chair with minimal pushback from the 168 members of the RNC.

With many state GOP organizations struggling with money across the country, the source argued the problem is well beyond McDaniel’s control at this point. Without enough money to have much sway over down ballot candidates, the Trump war chest is the only game left in town.

“I don’t think it went bottom-up. It’s top-to-bottom. The screwups start with him,” the source close to the RNC said of Trump, “and then they’re filtering down through.”

ONLINE IN OHIO

It’s a mantra for some campaigns—Joe Biden’s among them—that online isn’t real life.

But Progressive Victory, a nonprofit focusing its efforts in 2024 on increasing new voter registrations, is betting big on a strategy to convert some online energy into real-life political energy.

In what the outfit is billing as a first-of-its-kind event, streamers—often mega-popular personalities who talk to audiences while playing video games, among other things—will flood to Ohio between Feb. 9 and 11 to knock on doors and make face-to-face contact with voters over the Super Bowl weekend.

The group is targeting young voters who make up streamers’ audiences, but it’s possible many of the people they speak to will have no idea who these personalities are.

Steven Kenneth Bonnell II, a Nebraska native who goes by Destiny on his livestreams on the platform Twitch, will be in attendance after racking up more than 4 million views in a recent debate with conservative commentator Ben Shapiro.

For Bonnell—who describes his politics as “heterodox center-left to far-left progressive, depending on what we’re talking about”—a low-budget event like this one is a welcome change.

“I think it’s always good when you’re dealing face-to-face,” Bonnell told The Daily Beast of the voter engagement efforts.

Twitch Streamer Sorry After NYC Giveaway Leads to a Riot

Bonnell, 35, said that streaming audiences—which largely consist of very online but politically unengaged Gen Z and millennials—represent a potentially significant, untouched source of fundraising and political muscle.

“There’s just a huge untapped market,” he said, noting some of his followers donate upwards of $100 per month even though his talking-only broadcasts are free.

An attentive audience ready to whip out their wallets at a moment’s notice is something any politician should pay attention to, but Bonnell said whoever gets there first could change the fundraising game in politics.

The only politician who’s come close is Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who hit a peak of more than 400,000 concurrent viewers while streaming the game “Among Us” in October 2020. The online meetup, which featured other members of the left-wing Squad, brought in $200,000 for charity, showing the potential of the platform in small-dollar donations.

It might not be in 2024, Bonnell said, but someone will figure out how to scale such an idea to a traditional political campaign.

“I think there’s a huge pot of gold for whoever can figure that out,” Bonnell said.

OFF THE BEATEN PATH

A debate to remember. One of the first House debates of the 2024 primary cycle went completely off the rails on Sunday.

In a Pittsburgh-area district, first-term Rep. Summer Lee (D-PA) will once again be a target of massive spending from the pro-Israel group AIPAC. The group spent heavily in hopes of defeating Lee in 2022; this year, progressives believe that Lee and other members of the left-wing Squad could face as much as $100 million against them from AIPAC.

But a sideshow at the debate took the focus off Lee’s foreign policy positions.

One of Lee’s Democratic opponents, Laurie MacDonald—who was recently accused by former employees of overseeing a toxic work environment as CEO of the Center for Victims in Pittsburgh—had a borderline meltdown where she insulted the district’s constituents.

“My opponent, the people who live in her district have no families, they live in squalor,” MacDonald said before members of the crowd shouted out in protest at the remarks. “You think you know, right? Well guess what? I work there. I have helped those communities… OK, I’m not gonna do this.”

The Squad Is Facing an ‘Existential Threat’ in 2024

The Lee campaign saw the moment as a symptom of a broader problem in the relatively safe Democratic seat—and alleged MacDonald was a GOP plant.

“Republicans have figured out they can’t really win in places like Pittsburgh, so they are inserting fully MAGA candidates in primaries,” a Lee campaign adviser told The Daily Beast. “That was absolutely veiled racism.”

The Lee campaign has since dubbed the incident “Squalorgate,” and managed to raise over $3,000 in a 12-hour period following the debate as the clip went viral. Lee’s campaign reported $1.1 million in cash on hand to end 2023, a strong haul in a non-election year.

MacDonald’s campaign did not return a request for comment.

“Both of Summer’s opponents are Republican-funded, corporate bought candidates, and they’re both trying to turn minority communities against each other,” the Lee adviser said, referring to her other Democratic rival, Bhavani Patel, who has drawn interest from AIPAC, according to a Jewish Insider report from August.

“This is a real primary,” the Lee campaign adviser said. “AIPAC has $100 million to spend, and moments like that are important to look at when you have big money at play like this.”

Dog ate it. Jeffrey Ross Gunter, the GOP candidate for Senate in Nevada who served a brief and controversy-riddled tenure as Trump’s ambassador to Iceland, stated he loaned his campaign $225,000 after launching his campaign in the third quarter of 2023. The sum represented over half of what Gunter claimed to have raised for his Senate bid.

In a befuddling twist, Gunter is now saying the loan check never went through because it got lost. In a notice to the Federal Election Commission amending his third quarter report, the campaign says Gunter “notified the treasurer that they mailed the candidate loan reflected in the original report but the loan never arrived for deposit.”

“The candidate believes the loan to be lost in the mail,” the letter said. It adds that he intends to send a “new loan”—unclear if he’ll use FedEx this time around.

POLLING STATION

A major warning for the Trump campaign emerged in the details of a Monmouth University poll in South Carolina released on Thursday.

While polling thus far in the GOP primary has shown some 20 percent of Republican voters saying Trump should not be the nominee if he’s convicted of a crime, that number nearly doubled in the Monmouth poll, which was taken from Jan. 26 to 30 among Republican potential primary voters in South Carolina over the phone and online.

Fully 36 percent said Trump should not be the nominee if he’s convicted of a crime, a clear warning sign for the Trump campaign in the state ahead of its primary on Feb. 24. However, that also leaves 60 percent of Republican voters in the state saying they think Trump should stay if he’s convicted.

CAMPAIGN LIT

Mike Johnson’s fundamentalist roots. Roger Sollenberger dove into the new House Speaker’s ties to Christian dominionists, who hold several views in direct opposition to constitutionally protected freedoms.

Two door Sinema club. Sam Brodey revealed new details about Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s use of private planes funded with taxpayer money, and uncovered Sinema’s “nuts” pattern of campaign spending on luxury trips and security services with Roger.

Texas mess. Reese Gorman got ahold of private comments from Texas Senate hopeful Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat, saying his primary rival Rep. Colin Allred can’t win in the state because he’s not Hispanic.

On the borderline. Riley Rogerson reported on the breakdown in talks over immigration reform in Congress, with Democrats accusing Republicans of being “full of shit” when it comes to actually solving the problem.

If you see him in the club. Sam and Riley also had exclusive reporting on the messy GOP primary in Ohio’s 9th Congressional District, including a memorable scene involving repeat candidate J.R. Majewski at a D.C. nightclub.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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