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GOP leaders seek to fend off Trump endorsement as far-right Republican eyes Illinois primary bid

By Melanie Zanona and Manu Raju, CNN

Donald Trump’s closest Hill allies are privately lobbying the former President to get involved in a Republican-on-Republican matchup in Illinois, a potentially messy scenario that has sparked internal strife in the party and prompted GOP leaders to launch a counter-campaign aimed at keeping Trump on the sidelines.

At the center of it all is freshman Rep. Mary Miller, a member of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus who has been left without a seat after redistricting. Now she’s deciding whether to challenge fellow Illinois Republican Reps. Rodney Davis or Mike Bost. Hoping to boost Miller’s political prospects, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia — another controversial firebrand who is close with Miller — has been talking her up to Trump and encouraging him to throw his weight behind Miller, according to multiple GOP sources.

A Trump endorsement would turbocharge the intraparty battle and potentially make things even stickier, something GOP leaders are eager to avoid. So House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has worked behind-the-scenes to head it off: he has urged Trump to stay out of the primary race, telling the former President that Bost and Davis — who are poised to become committee chairmen if Republicans reclaim the House after next year’s midterms — are both good members, sources said.

The tug-of-war over Trump’s potential involvement in Illinois is just the latest headache for GOP leaders as they seek to keep the party united in their quest to reclaim power. While McCarthy views Trump as an essential ally in his efforts to win back the House and become speaker, the former President’s meddling in certain GOP primaries could also make life more difficult for the California Republican.

And Miller has created other heartburn for McCarthy and the party. In particular, Republicans are upset that Miller has spread disinformation about a bipartisan bill that passed the House to bolster how vaccination records are maintained and shared. Miller attacked the 80 Republicans who backed the measure, and later told the conservative outlet Breitbart News that the bill would “track” unvaccinated Americans who “will be targeted and forced to comply with Biden’s crazy ‘global vaccination’ vision.”

The attack took off in conservative media — and put the Republicans who backed the bill on the defensive as they fielded a flood of angry messages and calls, even though they argue the legislation would do nothing of the sort.

McCarthy alluded to that behind closed doors this week, suggesting to his conference that if there were questions about what’s in a bill, then a member should request information from the bill’s authors and committees of jurisdiction to get their facts straight, instead of attacking fellow Republicans. While McCarthy didn’t mention Miller by name, attendees interpreted his message as a warning shot aimed directly at Miller.

“We’ve had a little bit of Republican-on-Republican infighting and it just needs to stop, across the board,” said Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican, recounting the discussion. “And we have disagreements on policy, that’s OK. But no name calling, no going after other Republicans, you know, personally or in the media or anything like that. Focus your fire where we have a real disagreement, that’s with our colleagues on the other side of the aisle.”

Miller refused to answer any questions about her political plans — or about the controversy she stirred by attacking her colleagues over the vaccination measure. Leaving House votes on Thursday, Miller walked in silence as a CNN reporter asked her eight questions and later waited to board a members-only elevator.

Miller, through her office, also declined an interview request and didn’t answer questions in a written statement either, instead slamming vaccine mandates and databases and taking a shot at CNN.

“I oppose any effort by the Biden Administration to use vaccine mandates or vaccine databases to fire Americans from their jobs — period,” Miller said in a statement.

The filing deadline in Illinois is in March, with the primaries set to take place in June.

Miller’s colleagues see her recent behavior as a clear indication that she’s positioning herself for a Republican primary. Davis voted for the vaccination records bill, though Bost did not. And Miller wrote on Twitter that she was “the only Republican from IL to vote against” an annual defense policy bill, which she falsely claimed would allow servicemembers to get fired if they don’t get the vaccine and indoctrinate the troops with critical race theory.

Republicans have clearly been irritated by Miller’s tactics. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a GOP member from Texas, launched a public rebuttal to Miller on Twitter and took a swipe at the House Freedom Caucus during a recent event with GOP congressional candidates.

“What you hear so often is not true. We have grifters in our midst,” Crenshaw said. “Lie after lie after lie.”

Rep. Bill Huizenga, a Michigan Republican who backed the vaccination records bill, also expressed frustration.

“It’s frustrating to see, whether it’s for ratings or whether it’s for fundraising or whatever it is, people out there pushing that false narrative,” he said. “And there were some good, solid conservative members that voted for it.”

Huizenga added that the disinformation persuaded some Republicans to vote against it because they didn’t want to deal with the right, even though they backed the plan.

“And, and what I’ve heard from some other colleagues is they, they knew but they just, that it was an OK bill to vote for, they just didn’t want to put up with the hassle of it, which is kind of chicken, and that’s the point,” he said. “You got to make tough calls and decisions and go then explain it to people, which we’ve been doing.”

Miller, however, has some powerful allies in the Freedom Caucus. Greene did a fundraiser for Miller in Illinois this summer, while Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, one of the founders of the hard-line group, sang her praises when asked about the prospect of her having to challenge one of her GOP colleagues in a primary.

It’s unclear whether Trump has any interest in wading into the race. His spokesman did not return a request for comment. But Trump endorsed Miller in her first campaign and she has built a reputation as a staunch Trump acolyte since coming to Congress. Trump has also shown has no qualms getting involved in a race involving two incumbents, having already endorsed GOP Rep. Alex Mooney of West Virginia, who is challenging Rep. David McKinkley, another Republican in the state, after redistricting lumped their seats into one district.

And there are other reasons why Trump may be attracted to the contest. Davis voted to certify the election results and backed a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection, which Trump railed against. But Davis was also co-chairman of Trump’s campaign in Illinois and caucused for him in Iowa. Bost, too, has previously received Trump’s support and the former President once held a rally in his district.

In a brief interview, Davis declined to talk about a hypothetical matchup with Miller, but he did play up his connections to Trump.

“I’m proud of my record of working with the President, while here in Congress on passing the Trump tax cuts. And I was proud to work with him not just governmentally, but be at many different events and rallies in DC, and outside of DC in my home state of Illinois, to really tout our successes together,” Davis said. “So I certainly hope to get his support in my next campaign.”

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