WEARE, New Hampshire Jan. 27 (Reuters) – Donald Trump defeated his Republican rivals in New Hampshire’s 2016 primary in a stunning victory that heralded other states as a serious contender for the reality TV showman. Trump captured the Republican nomination and then the White House.
But as the former president begins his bid to recapture the White House in 2024 with a speech in New Hampshire on Saturday — his first in an early primary state — he will find the political landscape more treacherous than he did six years ago. For party activists, members and strategists in the state.
In interviews with 10 New Hampshire Republican Party officials and members, some of whom worked on Trump’s 2016 primary campaign and all of whom were staunch Trump supporters in the past, Reuters found only three who are sticking with him this time — including Govt. The chair, an influential Republican figure so enamored of Trump, is stepping down Saturday to help his campaign.
The rest were tired of Trump’s controversies, excited by the continued drama and fresh-faced from Trump’s loss in 2020, who thought they had a strong chance of winning in 2024.
Trump’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
The public outcry over the former president is a worrisome development for Trump. Analysts say a loss could complicate the chances of winning the party’s nomination for president, as New Hampshire often gives candidates momentum when it comes to other primary states.
A lack of enthusiasm for the former president and his chances of winning in 2024 could hurt Trump, as party activists do key ground work for candidates, such as knocking on doors and making phone calls to raise money and boost turnout.
Most New Hampshire party members who have cooled on Trump have said they prefer Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as the party’s standard bearer, though DeSantis has not yet said whether he will launch a White House bid.
“Donald Trump is a distraction for the Republican Party right now trying to move forward. Donald Trump has run his course,” said Hillsborough County Republican Committeeman Brian Sullivan, 60, who supported Trump in the 2016 primary.
“I’d love to see someone like Ron DeSantis in the race,” Sullivan said.
While he likes Trump’s policies and admires his accomplishments in office, “He has a lot of baggage. I don’t think he has what it takes to win back the White House,” Sullivan said.
Three Republicans who support Trump said his base in New Hampshire is enthusiastic, that he has strong name recognition, that many Republican voters like his policy accomplishments while in office, and that they give him a strong record unlike other potential candidates.
The Trump campaign said in an email to supporters that a Jan. 24 poll from the Emerson College Poll shows DeSantis leading 55% to 29% nationally among Republican voters.
Yet the willingness of Republicans to criticize Trump in conversations with Reuters was surprising. Some Republican officials and members who have broken with Trump in the past have faced backlash and online trolling from his supporters.
Lori Davis, 67, got into grassroots Republican politics because of Trump. When he announced his candidacy in 2015, he was impressed. He worked on his New Hampshire primary campaign, knocking on doors for him and urging anyone he met to vote for him.
Not this time.
“I like Donald Trump, but he’s become so polarizing. It’s going to be an uphill battle for him in this primary because of his divisiveness. People are tired of the drama,” Davis said over burgers at his home.
“I see that people love DeSantis. He has a lot of Trump philosophy, but he’s not bombastic, he’s not attacking people 24/7. People are tired of this. It gives them a headache,” Davis said.
“People want a winner”
And it’s not just in New Hampshire where Trump faces potential headwinds. Some of the billionaire donors who funded his previous campaigns have yet to donate. Among them are hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebecca Mercer. He has already donated to DeSantis’ political group.
New Hampshire plays a large role in the selection of presidential candidates, as it is the second nominating contest after Iowa’s caucuses.
The winner of New Hampshire’s Republican primary in 2000 was George W. Although Bush has not won a general election in the state, it is seen as an important test in the nomination process.
Chris Maidment, chairman of the Hillsborough County Republican Committee, described the mood among many members as “Trump fatigue,” adding: “I’m definitely open-minded at this point. There are a lot of exciting candidates.”
Trump lost the majority of congressional elections to Democrats in November. Republicans have lost control of both houses of Congress in Trump’s four years as president since his 2016 victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton, and he lost the 2020 election to his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden.
“People want a winner and elections are about the future. Republicans want someone who can win and not pander to the left. Trump represented that before, but I’m not sure he represents that now,” Neal said. Levesque is executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College.
A Levesque poll of Republican primary voters in New Hampshire just before last November’s election found Trump trailing DeSantis 38% to 47%. Overall, 50% of state voters had a “strongly unfavorable” view of Trump, with just 22% “strongly favorable.”
Another complicating factor for Trump this time around is that independents can vote in New Hampshire’s Republican and Democratic primaries. If Biden runs again, the Democratic primary will be uncontested, and many independents may choose to vote in the Republican primary, where their votes will have a bigger impact.
“Independents are going to a place of action. A lot of independents will vote against Trump. That’s not good news for him,” said Tom Roth, a Republican strategist in New Hampshire.
Polls in New Hampshire and elsewhere show Trump unpopular with a majority of independents.
Despite signs of fatigue with Trump, some party strategists said he would still be a strong candidate in the New Hampshire primary.
“He’s still leading 2023. He’s name ID, has a strong base of supporters. His influence is still significant,” said Jim Merrill, a senior strategist for the New Hampshire Republican Party.
Although the field of contenders could grow this year, Trump is the only Republican who has announced his nominee so far. Trump’s former Vice President Mike Pence DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley are expected to jump into the race.
Sticking with the real deal
For former state Rep. Steve Stepanek, the first elected official in New Hampshire to endorse Trump in 2015 and chairman of New Hampshire’s Republican Party, those potential rivals would be pale shades of the real thing.
He has been a staunch supporter of the former president and told Reuters he was stepping down as party chairman because he wanted to be involved in Trump’s latest campaign.
A replacement will be chosen at a party meeting on Saturday, where Trump will be the keynote speaker. It remains unclear whether Stepanek’s departure will loosen Trump’s grip on the party machine.
Stepanek accused Republican naysayers of being Republican insiders, not ordinary voters who decide primaries.
“Are you going to believe a candidate who says I’m going to continue Trump’s policies — or a person who’s going to follow Trump’s policies?”
Reporting by Tim Reid in Ware, New Hampshire; Editing by Ross Colvin and Suzanne Goldenberg
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