Donald Trump Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle make a dynamic campaign duo. They hit the trail to stump for Republicans and fire up the Trump base.
INWOOD, W.Va. – They’re the next best thing to Donald Trump and they’re drawing the Republican base this midterm election with rock-star appeal.
Donald Trump Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle’s campaign tour 2018 has been equal parts fundraising circuit, voter turnout operation and pump-up for the president’s 2020 re-election.
And if you ask supporters here, it’s also a glimpse at a future Trump Jr. presidential campaign, complete with a warm-up act from his potential first lady.
One Monday in West Virginia, Guilfoyle, 49, sashayed onto the stage to excited applause, as people jumped up to take photos of the former Fox News host.
“We love you Kimberly!” a woman shouted from the crowd.
“I love you toooo, I love you soooo much, that Don Junior and I are here today to make sure that we get the vote out in West Virginia,” replied Guilfoyle.
The couple – their relationship became public this summer – would visit five states and do 16 events by the time the week was over, according to political adviser Andrew Surabian.
Guilfoyle left Fox to become vice chair of both America First Policies, a pro-Trump advocacy group, and super PAC America First. Trump Jr., is the president’s son and executive vice president of the Trump Organization. The pair, who got together after Trump Jr. split with Vanessa Trump, the mother of his five children, in March, have pounded the campaign trail hard, sometimes hitting rallies and fundraisers for multiple candidates in one day.
On this Monday morning at Heritage Hall – a banquet room sparkling with glass chandeliers and infused with classic rock music – they were taking the stage on behalf of Patrick Morrisey, the state’s attorney general who is locked in a tight race with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.
After Morrisey’s speech, Trump Jr., 40, bounded onstage in a suit, sans tie, with his signature slicked-back hair. Someone from the audience shouted, “We love your father!” Another person jumped in, “We love you!”
And the base does love Trump Jr. and Guilfoyle. So much so, some Republicans are happily surprised – and impressed.
Alice Stewart, a Republican strategist for Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, said when she first heard the new couple was out on the trail, she was “skeptical.” But now she believes the pair are effective at connecting with base voters.
“It’s easy to sit in Washington, D.C., or New York or on the coast and make light of the influence of Don Jr. and Kimberly,” Stewart said. “But when you go to these events, where they are, and you see the reaction and the reception that they receive from GOP voters, you see that there’s a value in what they’re doing.”
And despite President Donald Trump’s frenetic rally schedule, he can’t be everywhere.
“It’s as close as many people are going to come to rubbing shoulders with the president,” said Ari Fleischer, a former press secretary for President George W. Bush.
Fleischer said there’s always an allure around children of presidents. He pointed to Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of former President Bill Clinton who is often floated as someone with a political future. Last week, the former first daughter said she’d be open to running for office if “someone were to step down or retire.”
Guilfoyle spoke at an event for the Republican Jewish Coalition in mid-October, where Fleischer is a board member. Trump Jr. attended as a guest.
“They’re a hot ticket,” Fleischer said. “Republicans, faithful treat them like rock stars.”
Democrats also know Guilfoyle’s appeal. She was married to Gavin Newsom when he was mayor of San Francisco. Despite registering as a Republican at 18, Guilfoyle said in a 2004 Harper’s Bazaar spread titled “The New Kennedys” she would vote for Newsom for president. Newsom is now the Democratic nominee for California governor and is expected to win. She has a son from her second marriage to businessman and designer Eric Villency.
The president and his allies worry that with President Trump not on this year’s ballot, some of his most enthusiastic supporters won’t show up to the polls. Trump has said voters should think about the election as if he were running. His son and his girlfriend are taking that message seriously.
“We really emphasize that if you don’t vote on Nov. 6, it’s a vote essentially against President Trump because you’re allowing the Democrats to … get in there and take away and reverse all the accomplishments that the president’s been able to achieve,” Guilfoyle told USA TODAY in an exclusive interview with the pair ahead of the morning rally.
Democrats have already shown record levels of enthusiasm during special elections and primaries and Republicans acknowledge the left will be voting on Election Day, no matter what. So the GOP is trying to boost excitement from their core supporters even without Trump on the ballot.
“He’s charismatic for sure, and a very handsome young man,” said Sandee Palmer, 53, a landlord.
Her friend Gail Zurenda, 63, a retired receptionist agreed that Trump Jr. was “very handsome.” But it wasn’t just his looks that caught her eye, Zurenda has been paying attention to the president’s oldest son for a while.
“The whole Trump family is for America and I can see Donald Trump Jr. being our next president,” Zurenda said.
“Oh, yeah, yes, absolutely,” Trump Jr. could get into politics one day, said Ujima Tyson, 80, who preaches at the women’s jail.
“He goes after the meat and he brings it in and he feeds you,” she said.
Tyson was one of about a half-dozen African-Americans in the audience of over 300 people, according to registration numbers from Morrisey’s campaign.
After the rally, Trump Jr. and Morrisey walked through the banquet hall together. Trump Jr. was swarmed by supporters seeking selfies. Morrisey stood nearby watching and smiling – just out of the shot.
“These guys are difference-makers in West Virginia,” Morrisey told USA TODAY.
Manchin declined to address Trump Jr. and Guilfoyle’s appearance but said in an emailed statement he was “proud to have true West Virginia friends” support him, before listing prominent athletes and coaches – Bob Huggins, Jerry West, and Nick Saban – all from the state.
Of course, Trump Jr.’s political future requires him to stay out of legal trouble. Special counsel Robert Mueller has been investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. A focus of the investigation has been a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower involving Trump Jr. and several Russian nationals that he acknowledged he attended to get “dirt” on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. No charges have been filed regarding that meeting.
“I know that I’m not worried about anything I actually did,” Trump Jr told USA TODAY. “That doesn’t mean they don’t totally fabricate all of this stuff at this point.”
Trump Jr. and Guilfoyle are sticking to mostly safe Trump territory for their events; they’ve done almost 60 since May. The pair are primarily rallying in states that went for the president in 2016 – West Virginia by 42 percentage points. Like the president, they haven’t been asked to come out for some of the most competitive House races, particularly in suburban districts or on the coasts.
Democrat strategist Isaac Baker shrugged off the impact they would have on tight races.
“I think if you’re attracted or repulsed by their message, either way, you’ve already made up your mind at this stage of the election,” said Baker. “The voters we’re fighting for at this stage of the game couldn’t probably care less about Don. Jr and Kimberly Guilfoyle.”
Part of Guilfoyle’s speech touches on being a single mom and a Hispanic woman. It’s her attempt to appeal to two groups the party has struggled to attract.
When asked how she could appeal to women who may have voted Republican previously but are now moving away from the party, Guilfoyle told USA TODAY people may not like the way the president delivers his message, but they should appreciate the end results.
“I think most of this is about rallying the base,” said GOP strategist Josh Holmes, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s former chief of staff and campaign manager, when USA TODAY asked if the pair could help with independent voters. “The folks that typically turn out at these rallies at this point are the faithful.”
And the faithful seem to see a future for the pair. Trump Jr. and Guilfoyle chuckled and dodged when USA TODAY asked if they had any of their own political ambitions: “How about winning midterms?” Trump Jr. responded.
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Contributing: Deborah Berry, Bart Jansen, Kevin Johnson
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