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Top GOP senators offer Trump the softest of support

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Two members of Senate Republican leadership on Wednesday offered Donald Trump soft support as the party’s likely presidential nominee — but also urged him to view his New Hampshire victory as a nudge to do more to court independent voters.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the conference’s No. 2 leader, said that he’d support Trump if the former president wins the party’s nod, but gave no hint he’ll endorse before the primary is officially over. Thune, who faced tension with Trump ahead of his 2022 reelection bid to the Senate, acknowledged after Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary that voters are “breaking heavily” for Trump, who is “in a commanding position.”

“I’ve said all along I’ll support the nominee. So if he’s the nominee, I’ll do what I can to help the team win the presidency,” Thune said.

That position aligns with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who hasn’t endorsed Trump and largely avoids saying his name at all — but has also said he’ll support the party’s presidential nominee. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), a leadership counselor to McConnell, also said Wednesday that he won’t endorse in the primary but that he’ll support the party’s nominee.

Both Thune and Tillis added that Trump rival Nikki Haley’s strong showing with independent and swing voters in New Hampshire results should signal to the Trump team that it has a weakness outside the party’s die-hard base.

“They are going to have to reach out and convince” independents, Tillis said of the Trump campaign.

Thune told reporters that in order for Trump to defeat Biden, “his message is going to have to appeal to those independent voters.”

The Senate Republican conference has long lagged behind their House counterparts in their level of Trump support, though a growing number have either endorsed him or indicated that they’ll support him if he wins the nomination.

While neither Thune nor Tillis gave any indication they would offer Trump a full-throated endorsement now, two of the “three Johns” — a popular Hill reference to Thune, Senate GOP Conference Chair John Barrasso (Wyo.) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), all viewed as potential successors to McConnell when he steps down — are explicitly on board with the former president.

Thune and Trump have had an occasionally rocky history. Trump lashed out repeatedly at Thune after the GOP senator acknowledged the obvious — that the then-president’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election on Jan. 6 would fall short. Trump called for a primary challenger against Thune, who easily won reelection in 2022.