‘Cult members only come out for the cult leader’: Lara said to be first Trump set for 2024 run – but can she win?

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Harriet Alexander
·14 min read
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<p>Lara Trump could run in 2024</p>

Lara Trump could run in 2024

When Lara Yunaska walked down the aisle at Mar-a-Lago to marry Eric Trump, it was the wedding officiant who summed it up best.

“You are not just gaining a family,” said Jared Kushner to his new sister-in-law. “You are getting six million Twitter followers.”

Fast forward seven years, and Ms Trump, now 38, is weighing up just what to do with her influential surname – and the power of that support.

It seems she, like her famous father-in-law, may use them to carve out a political career.

“It’s something that I certainly have considered,” she said, asked in the immediate aftermath of the election.

“The gut feeling from a lot of folks is that she’d be a front runner,” said Dr Michael Bitzer, professor of political science at Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina.

And, despite having never running for office before, Dr Bitzer told The Independent that she shouldn’t be written off. Her experience on her father-in-law’s campaign, he said, “gave her as good a training as any”. Whether she wants to get involved in the details of actual governance is another issue entirely, he added.

The shiny object catching Ms Trump’s eye is a soon-to-be vacant Senate seat in her home state of North Carolina. Richard Burr, the 65-year-old incumbent, announced back in 2016 that this term – his fourth – would be his last.

Pouring more fuel on the fire, Mr Burr voted to impeach Mr Trump, becoming one of only seven Republican senators to do so.

His vote infuriated hardline conservatives in the state, and seemed to give Ms Trump’s potential candidacy a boost among those looking to punish Mr Burr for turning on Mr Trump.

”The biggest winner of this whole impeachment trial is Lara Trump,” said Lindsey Graham, South Carolina senator and one of Mr Trump’s closest allies.

“My dear friend Richard Burr, who I like and have been friends to a long time, just made Lara Trump almost the certain nominee for the Senate seat in North Carolina to replace him if she runs, and I certainly will be behind her because she represents the future of the Republican Party.”

The idea of Ms Trump as the future of the Republican Party has left many “never Trumpers” aghast.

“They are all such egotistical maniacs that if they get the idea of success in their head, they’ll go for it,” said Meghan Milloy, co-founder of Republican Women for Progress.

“But truly, her only real qualification is that she’s married to the former president’s least impressive son.”

Yet she may find herself the family’s standard bearer.

Donald Trump Jr, long said to relish the red blooded battle of politics, has ruled himself out, for now, of the running for a senate seat in Wyoming.

Ivanka Trump’s move to Florida has intrigued people with the idea of a potential challenge to Marco Rubio in 2022, but many think that is unlikely. So is Lara Trump interested? And, more importantly, can she do it?

Rob Goldstone, a PR who has worked with the Trump family for several years – most famously setting up the 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Mr Trump Jr and a Russian lawyer – told The Independent that Ms Trump was indeed one to watch.

“On 3 November, the vote didn’t mean an end to Trumpism,” he said. “Trump said she carried North Carolina for him.I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she ran for office too. She’s been so involved in this – I don’t see her walking away.”

She spoke at the Stop The Steal rally on the morning of the January 6 Capitol riot, which fired up the crowd, but later issued a diplomatic condemnation of the violence.

“Yesterday’s event in Washington DC was supposed to be about patriotism, love and freedom,” she wrote on Instagram.“I was proud to share with a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people that our family would continue fighting alongside fellow Americans who share our conservative values well into the future – that while Donald Trump may not be in the White House for the next 4 years, he still had their backs.

“It was truly sad and disgraceful to see that things ended yesterday so differently than they began.”

Some reports said that the deadly insurrection, whipped up by her father-in-law, gave her pause for thought.

But rumours persist that she is set on making the move into politics, and sources within the decidedly purple coastal state confirm that consultants have been “poking around” for her to test the waters.

“She would be formidable,” said Kellyanne Conway, a former White House official and the 2016 Trump campaign manager.

She told The New York Times: “She has the trifecta: She can raise money, raise awareness of key issues and raise attention to her race. Unlike many typical politicians, she connects with people and is a compelling messenger.”

Others point out that she has never been elected to any public office, and, despite being born and raised in North Carolina, does not even live in the state.

“There’s nothing against the law for somebody moving from New York state to North Carolina to run,” sneered Mark Walker, a North Carolina congressman who has already begun campaigning for the 2022 seat, in an interview with CNN.

The fact that she does not currently live in the state is not prohibitive. Elizabeth Dole, wife of the 1996 Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole and a member of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush’s Cabinets, was born in North Carolina and returned after a 40 year absence to win the 2003 Senate seat.

But Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist based in North Carolina, was cutting about her chances.“There are a lot of people ahead of Lara Trump in line,” he told The New York Times.

“Given how rare it is that there’s an open seat, I don’t believe any of the folks who actually live in North Carolina and have been here will get out of the way for someone else.”

One big question must be whether she is ready to abandon her very nice New York life. Born in Wilmington, she was raised in the affluent and outdoorsy community of Wrightsville Beach with her younger brother Kyle – who was parachuted into government by the Trumps, and is now deputy chief of staff at Nasa.

Ms Trump attended high school in Wilmington and North Carolina State University in Raleigh, graduating with a degree in communications. She started working in local television before, to the dismay of her parents, moving to New York City in 2007 to pursue a largely tangential passion for pastry arts at The French Culinary Institute. After graduating, she sold cakes out of her apartment before rediscovering broadcast news.

In 2011 she began working at Inside Edition, a CBS-owned news programme. She had met Eric Trump in a bar around 2004, and the couple married at Mar-a-Lago in 2014. They have two children – Luke, three, and one-year-old Carolina.

She quit Inside Edition during the 2016 campaign, but the pair did not move to Washington when Mr Trump was elected. Instead, they continued to split their time between the three-bedroom condominium in Trump Parc East that Eric purchased in 2007 for $2 million, and a mansion in Briarcliff Manor, a village in Westchester County that is historically known for its famous, estate-owning families, including the Vanderbilts, Astors and Rockefellers.

There, Ms Trump indulges in her sporting passions – horse riding, and running with their dogs Charlie and Ben. In the winter she skis with her sister-in-law Ivanka and her husband, Mr Kushner.

Her entry into the political arena was effortless, and perhaps predictable. She lobbied Mr Trump to be allowed to campaign in her home state.

“When my father-in-law decided he was running for president, I said to him, ‘Look, this is my home. I know the people in North Carolina, and I want to go down there. You can send me anytime you want’,” she said.

Tall, slender and blonde, with a social-media-perfect life, she was an ideal fit for the family brand.

“I’m a girl from North Carolina who really has no business even being involved with this family,” she said. “But I just so happened to fall in love with a guy, we clicked and it worked.”

Polished and poised, she was soon dispatched to rally the Trump troops.“It’s so great to be back home,” she said in September 2016, campaigning for her father-in-law in North Carolina. “I feel like I’m cheating to be back here.”

In March she spoke to a local political podcast, Tying It Together, and was effusive about her in-laws.

“I was so nervous! Because everyone is nervous about meeting their significant other’s family. But he’s such a family man, and loves his kids so much. He loves his country so much he literally gave up his life for this job,” she gushed. “He did it because he knew it was the last hope to make change in this country that he knew had to happen, before it was too late.”

There were problems, though. Speaking at the Republican National Convention, in August, she misquoted Abraham Lincoln.

“Abraham Lincoln once famously said: ‘America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves,’” she said.

Fact-checkers were quick to point out that while the line was often attributed to Lincoln in Facebook memes, he never said it himself.

More damagingly, it emerged shortly before Christmas that she had served on the board of a limited liability company (LLC) through which the Trump political operation has spent more than $700 million since 2019.

The LLC has been criticised for purposefully obscuring the ultimate destination of hundreds of millions of dollars of spending. Ms Trump was initially intended to be the president of the entity, with Mike Pence’s nephew John the vice president of it, the documents show.

Tim Murtaugh, a Trump team spokesman, said that neither Ms. Trump nor Mr Pence were compensated by American Made Media Consultants for their service as board members, and resigned in October 2019. Its very existence, however, raised eyebrows.

And the question remains as to how effective, in the Trump team, she has been. North Carolina has increasingly emerged as a swing state, and Mr Trump won in November by slightly over 1 percentage point – considerably closer than in 2016.

Ms Trump was heavily involved in movements to increase support among women. Yet in that too she failed: the 2020 figures were around the same as 2016. Mr Trump had a modest advantage among white women, and a much wider share of white women without college degrees, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of more than 110,000 voters. Mr Biden dominated with women in Mr Trump’s oft-referenced suburbs, winning 59 per cent to Mr Trump’s 40 per cent of a group that makes up around a quarter of the electorate nationwide.

Ms Milloy, from Republican Women for Progress, told The Independent: “She had a big role in Women for Trump, and that turned out to be not as successful as they had hoped.

“Sure, she might be able to speak in a full sentence, raise a ton of money and have name recognition, but it’s a low bar.”

And it won’t be an easy seat to claim. Doug Heye, a former Republican National Committee spokesman who used to work for Mr Burr, told The New York Times he questioned whether Ms Trump was willing to endure the tussle and tedium of running or serving.

“Many people love the speculation and the attention, but being senator is a lot of hard work,” he said.

Mr Walker, the only Republican to declare so far, is pitching himself in the purple state as both “a conservative warrior and a bridge builder”, and has already received the endorsements of Republican senators Tim Scott of South Carolina and James Lankford of Oklahoma, plus former Arkansas governor, Mike Huckabee.

Pat McCrory, 64, who was governor from 2013-17, is expected to run, and will present a strong challenge.

There will likely be more contenders – among them Tim Moore, the North Carolina speaker of the House, and Dan Forest, who just lost a race for governor against the Democratic incumbent, Roy Cooper. And there may be another contender from the president’s inner circle: Mark Meadows, the former North Carolina representative and Mr Trump’s White House chief of staff, is widely expected to move back home and run for the seat.

A BUSR/UNLV Lee Business School poll released in December found that Ms Trump leads Mr McCrory 24 per cent to 23 per cent, although this is within the poll’s seven-point margin of error.

The question remains as to how much of an asset her surname really is.

Mr Trump left the White House with the lowest job approval of his presidency at 29 per cent.

His high point, in January 2020, was 49 per cent – he never broke the 50 per cent approval rating throughout his term.

According to Pew, which surveyed 5,360 US adults from January 8-12, Trump voters, in particular, have grown more critical of their candidate’s post-election conduct.

The share of his supporters who describe his conduct as poor has doubled over the past two months, from 10 per cent to 20 per cent.

More damningly still, about two-thirds (68 per cent) of all respondents said Mr Trump should not continue to be a major national political figure for many years to come.

His Senate acquittal did give him a significant boost. Days later three out of four Republicans – 75 to 21 per cent – told Quinnipiac they would like to see the former president play a prominent role in the party. Quinnipiac’s findings were echoed in a Morning Consult survey released on February 16, which showed that nearly 60 per cent of Republican voters said Mr Trump should play a “major role” in the party going forward. Later this week Mr Trump himself will take to the stage of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

Will it work?

“There is a myth that Trump voters will come out for Trump candidates or family members,” said John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster and a veteran of campaigns in the South.

“Cult members only come out in full force for the cult leader.”

John Hood, president of the conservative John William Pope Foundation and weekly panelist on a North Carolina political talk show, warned it would not be easy for her.

“This is a difficult primary,” he told The Independent. “And it’s hard to predict. Unlike in New York and California, every year we import new voters, which means the old alliances don’t necessarily resonate.

“A not-insignificant number of voters weren’t in the state when McCrory was governor. He still has support, but she has name recognition.”

He also pointed out that, to win the primary, the threshold is only 30 per cent – meaning that the more Republicans who dive in to the race, the better Ms Trump’s chances could be, as establishment candidates split their vote.

And winning the primary is no guarantee of a Senate seat.

“The Democrats could win Burr’s seat and I wouldn’t consider it an upset,” he said. “Georgia and South Carolina have been less competitive than North Carolina for decades. And if there is someone with the surname Trump running, you can guarantee that the Democrats will throw everything they have at it.”

Mr Hood ultimately thinks she won’t run.

“It’s a big ask. And does she really want to be a Senator? With all the quorum calls and fundraising and tedium? But then, if we’ve learnt anything, it’s that sometimes in politics if you talk enough about something, it becomes real.

“And the more people that ask the question, the more likely it becomes.”

Ms Trump herself is remaining tight-lipped. But, asked before Christmas, she conceded: “We all know in this family, it’s bigger than just about you.”

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