Immediately after taping the announcement of his Senate candidacy on Tucker Carlson’s show, Billy Long paid former President Donald Trump a visit. As Long recalls it, Trump was a bit surprised.
“You’re in without my endorsement?” Trump asked the six-term Missouri GOP congressman. Long replied in the affirmative, then quickly explained why that should all change.
During their August meeting at Trump Tower, Long argued to Trump that if Republicans nominate someone other than him to keep retiring Sen. Roy Blunt’s (R-Mo.) seat red, the GOP might have to spend as much as $50 million in the state — money better spent in Arizona and Georgia. Channeling his past as an auctioneer, Long pitched himself as the equivalent of a “three-for-one” sale for Trump.
Three months later, Long is still seeking the former president’s support. Ahead of Congress’ Thanksgiving break, Long visited Trump again, this time in Mar-a-Lago. Trump told the imposing 66-year-old that he remains open to a Long endorsement but is in no rush.
“If he endorses in this race, I don’t care who he endorses. It’s over. … And that’s what I’m trying to impress upon him is that, you know, ‘you need to get involved in this race and put an end to it,’” Long said during a 40-minute interview. “’You’re looking at the guy that was with you from Day One.’ Never ever left. I mean, look at this tie.”
Long just so happened to be wearing a tie that then-candidate Trump signed five years ago, after the Missouri congressman spoke on his behalf in Nevada, when Trump appeared a surefire general-election loser. It’s just one more data point for Long’s sales pitch: He stands out, amid a sea of House Republicans racing to align themselves with Trump, as a believer before it was party orthodoxy.
Long’s Trump-OG approach is emblematic of the former president’s singular influence in Republican primaries, where entire campaigns are predicated on landing one man’s endorsement. It’s a new dynamic in American politics, where a man in Trump’s position usually keeps his head low and lets things in his party play out.
Built like a lineman, Long recalls in his thick “Missoura” twang lengthy anecdotes about everything from paying $37 for that tie in Nevada to handing home-printed $45 bills to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. As a young boy, Long taught his dog to roll over and play dead upon being asked: “Would you rather be a Democrat or a dead dog?”
These days he’s barnstorming the state in what he calls the “Billy Bus,” festooned with a blown-up picture of Long in a cowboy hat. He once went full auctioneer on a disruptive activist during a committee hearing.
“There’s no pretense. He’s not one person in public, one person in private. The way he presents himself now is always who I have known him to be,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) of Long.
Long is working closely with longtime Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, both because she’s “brilliant” and because she’s willing to go with Long whenever he wants to talk to Trump: “I would hope it would help me a little bit, having Kellyanne on my team.” He said Conway can’t get him the endorsement, but it’s one more way Long appeals to what’s often driven Trump’s thinking: loyalty.
“He was at the meetings when we were getting together in very small rooms at the Capitol Hill Club. He was there,” said another early Trump backer, Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), a former House member who jumped chambers in 2018.
And Missouri’s Republican Senate race is an absolute mad dash to win Trump’s favor. Long voted against certifying Trump’s loss on Jan. 6, but so did Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), now one of his Senate primary opponents. Hartzler’s campaign cites 538 numbers showing she voted with Trump slightly more than Long did.
Then there’s Eric Greitens, who resigned as governor amid a torrent of ethical troubles and is now running as the guy who would toss Mitch McConnell out of the Senate GOP’s top spot — harmonizing directly directly with Trump’s repeated attacks on McConnell. Yet another GOP candidate, state Attorney General Eric Schmitt, just traveled to the Mexico border. Not to mention Mark McCloskey, who followed his guilty plea on charges stemming from waving guns at Missouri protesters by going to Kenosha, Wis., to attend the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse.
With a March filing deadline, Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.) could also still enter the race; like Long, he’s got a close relationship with Trump.
“Every Republican in the Missouri Senate race believes they have a path to [former] President Trump’s endorsement. And a couple of them actually do,” said Gregg Keller, a Republican strategist in the state. Keller sees Schmitt, Long and Smith as having the best chances.
With the primary more than eight months away in August, things are already getting ugly. Summing up the field, Long says his opponents should be “writing revisionist history textbooks, because they’re all revising their history with Trump.” He hits Hartzler as inauthentic and insufficiently conservative; her campaign manager responded by citing Long’s campaign spending: “Billy is not focused on fighting for Missouri, he’s just looking for his next big meal.”
Long calls Greitens “Chuck Schumer’s candidate,” a reference to GOP fears that his sex scandal will be a general-election liability. A Greitens spokesperson said that “Billy Long is a much better comedian than he is a Senate candidate.”
Still, Long draws the line somewhere as he competes for Trump’s favor. He won’t call for McConnell’s ouster from leadership, dubbing Greitens’ push for that a “talking point.” Long alleges “irregularities” in the way states conducted the 2020 election but also attended Biden’s inauguration, concluding that “he’s the president.”
A former talk radio host, Long is not on Fox News every chance he gets, eschewing a frequent tactic by Republicans who speak to Trump over the airways. Long estimates he’s been on cable news only about three times in his career. Though he proudly recounts conversations with Trump going back a decade when he was a first-term lawmaker in Congress, Long is also wary of smacking of desperation.
“I have people say: ‘Call him, call him every day. Go sit at Mar-a-Lago and tell him you’re not leaving till he endorses,’” Long said. “I’m smart enough to know that’s not going to win favor with Donald Trump.”
Long could have played it safe and stayed in his southwestern Missouri seat, where he was just reelected with 69 percent of the vote. But an open Senate seat in GOP-leaning territory is a rare opportunity for any Republican looking to rise, as the scramble to replace Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) also shows.
Even as he predicts Trump would thin the crowded Missouri primary with an endorsement, Long says he won’t drop out if the former president chooses someone else. That could prove difficult if he chooses to move forward against a Trump endorsee such as Schmitt or Greitens, both of whom have won statewide races. Most Missouri Republicans do not believe Trump will endorse Greitens, however.
By contrast, Long’s congressional district represents just an eighth of the state and is not centered in the state’s big media markets. He’s fourth among the Republican primary candidates in fundraising. Still, he’s used to being an underdog.
“When he ran for Congress the first time, people generally didn’t think he would be the nominee, and he was pretty comfortably the nominee,” said Blunt, the incumbent whose retirement opened the seat up. “He was a Trump advocate early on, and they have a good personal relationship, I think. The Trump endorsement would matter.”
High value doesn’t guarantee victory, though. Several Trump-approved candidates have lost primaries, and Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) is in a tough Senate nomination fight despite Trump’s backing.
No matter the recipient or effect of Trump’s imprimatur in Missouri, just don’t expect Billy Long to change his tune as he tries to win it.
“I can’t be somebody fake,” Long said. “I mean, I may not win the race. And I may not get the endorsement. But I’m gonna do it my way.”