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Don Jr. becomes his father’s understudy on the campaign trail

Don Jr. becomes his father's understudy on the campaign trail

Donald Trump, Jr.

Donald Trump Jr. interacts with the crowd at a rally for his father in Ohio. | M. Scott Mahaskey/POLITICO

For Republican candidates who can’t get President Donald Trump, there’s always the next best thing: Junior.

Donald Trump Jr. will hold a series of fundraisers and events in the coming months for Senate Republicans running for reelection. And like his father, who prizes loyalty, he’ll be appearing for some of his fiercest defenders on Capitol Hill, including Sens. John Cornyn, Lindsey Graham, Thom Tillis and Steve Daines.

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“Everyone knows he is the president’s son,” said Cornyn (R-Texas), who Trump Jr. will be holding an event for this year. “All the Trump voters would be pretty fired up. I guess all the Never Trump people would be pretty mad but that’s kind of where we are.”

It’s not the first time the president’s eldest son has campaigned for others. During just six months of the 2018 midterms, a source says, Trump Jr. did 70 events for Republican candidates and state parties.

But with the president more focused on his own reelection, Trump Jr. will be a powerful surrogate for GOP lawmakers — and one who is willing to use even sharper elbows than his famously combative father.

Like his father, Trump Jr. regularly criticizes the media for alleged bias and embraces Twitter to attack liberals. But his visceral connection to the MAGA crowd could be a unique asset to Republicans eager to stoke the base.

Trump Jr. has retweeted — but later deleted — an alt-right commentator who questioned Kamala Harris’ racial heritage and promoted a tweet from Dinesh D’Souza asking whether former special counsel Robert Mueller was replaced during his Capitol Hill appearance by a “mentally retarded look-alike.”

More recently, he compared Rep. Joaquin Castro’s decision to post a list of San Antonian Trump donors to the kill list of the Dayton, Ohio shooter, warning that the list could influence “the fringe crazies.”

Matt Mackowiak, president of the Potomac Strategy Group, which offers consulting to conservative campaigns, described Trump Jr.’s campaign style as a more modern version of his father’s.

“He loves responding, you might want to even say trolling on a more active basis,” he said. “Because he’s more current, he can use modern day tactics, understands how to make a sharp argument, understands how to sort of cheekily criticize someone, sort of demonstrate a clever but cutting approach. In a way it’s almost like he’s a next generation model.”

A source close to Trump Jr. also described the president’s son’s campaign style as more piercing than his father’s, which the source attributed to a sense of loyalty. But that style can have its drawbacks.

“I think he goes a little bit edgier than his father does,” the source said. “And edgier isn’t always better. It can create a bad news cycle. When his father creates a bad news cycle it’s by design.”

Yet Republicans still praise Trump Jr.’s campaigning skills and are more than happy to accept his help.

“He brings a lot of energy, he’s out there fighting for his father and his agenda. I think he’d be very helpful to a lot of us,” said Graham, who was one of Trump Jr.’s strongest defenders earlier this year when the Senate Intelligence Committee subpoenaed him for a second time as part of its investigation into Russian interference. “He’s coming down to South Carolina and will do a fundraiser for me — it’s all good.”

Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who Trump Jr. campaigned for during the last cycle, applauded his “willingness to stop and take all the selfies that he can take and move quickly to the next thing and not squander time. “

Cramer emphasized that Trump Jr. “is actually masterful” at capitalizing on selfies.

In addition to Senate races, Trump Jr. will also attend events for Dan Bishop and Gregory Murphy on August 28 for the North Carolina special elections, at the request of Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), another close Trump ally. He’ll also headline events on August 29 for Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, who is up for re-election in November.

The president’s son is also already fundraising on his father’s behalf and will only increase his political activity next year in the run-up to the 2020 election. In July, he headlined fundraisers with his partner Kimberly Guilfoyle, a former Fox News host and current Trump 2020 campaign adviser, that raked in $2.5 million in two days. The duo were also scheduled to headline a fundraiser in New York for Daines on July 28, but that has since been postponed to later this year.

“He’s a good friend and he is so warmly received by Montanans,” Daines said. “He spends a lot of time in the outdoors. He has a passion for the outdoors like so many Montanans have, so he understands our way of life and we’re looking forward to having him out there.”

But Democrats don’t exactly see Trump Jr.’s campaigning as a boon. He campaigned against Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.), but both won re-election. And the owners of a tavern in Bozeman, Mont. where Trump Jr. was set to hold a campaign appearance in 2018 also pulled out of the event, saying “that’s just not who we are” and said they wanted to stay “politically neutral,” after Trump Jr.’s plans were made public. Trump Jr. at the time was going to support the state’s Republican auditor who was challenging Tester.

Tester said Trump Jr. went so far as “claiming that he was a Montanan.”

“He does not have the cachet that his dad does but you know I’m sure he likes to get some trips paid for to Montana,” Tester said. “When I ran, I didn’t need help from [outside].”

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who could face a tough re-election bid in 2020, said he isn’t worried about a trip from Trump Jr. to Michigan.

“I would definitely not be intimidated, that would be the last thing,” Peters said.

Meanwhile, other Republican senators up in 2020 said they hadn’t yet given much thought to Trump Jr. joining them on the campaign trail.

“I didn’t even know he was playing a role in the 2020 elections,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a centrist representing a blue state. When asked whether she would want to campaign with Trump Jr., she replied: “That’s a very premature question because I haven’t made my own decision yet.”

Trump Jr.’s political activity has also spurred questions about whether he himself may run for office some day, particularly in Montana where he has spent time campaigning.

Montana governor and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Steve Bullock expressed skepticism of that idea in an interview with POLITICO.

“Folks that decide that they’re going to come to Montana and try to change Montana to fit whatever their view is, it doesn’t always work,” Bullock said. “So I think people are skeptical of him.”

Another source close to Trump Jr. said he has “no interest” in running for office and is only focused on his father’s re-election, helping Republicans keep the Senate and take back the House.

But Cramer, who praised Trump Jr. for his zeal for throwing himself into events, said that he could see Trump Jr. having his own political future.

“I think if anybody has it in him he has it in him,” Cramer said. “It’s impossible to look at him and not envision a possible candidate some day.”

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