In 2016, New Hampshire Republicans lifted Donald Trump’s candidacy after he lost in Iowa, becoming the first state to embrace the future president.
Trump is returning Saturday for the first campaign trip of his 2024 run, but this time, he’s confronting rougher GOP terrain.
It’s a party chafing over devastating midterm losses in November, when Trump-backed candidates lost both congressional contests and a Senate race in the state.
It’s dotted with those eager to hear from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis about his potential candidacy. And it’s a party that has grown fatigued over the drip, drip, drip of investigations dogging Trump.
We just want the best normal candidate.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu
While Trump is considered the early favorite, the doubters, naysayers and haters in the New Hampshire Republican Party could steer him off course.
Not the least of whom is the governor.
“We just want the best normal candidate,” Gov. Chris Sununu said in an interview. Sununu, a social moderate who is considering his own run for president, threw some shade on both Trump and DeSantis before they even stepped foot in the state.
Sununu predicted that Trump couldn’t defeat President Joe Biden — or just about anyone — in a 2024 general election. Asked why, he paused.
“Really?” he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “Just fill in the blanks.”
Sununu argued that New Hampshire Republicans are tired of drama and are ready for a new face.
“I’m not pro-Trump. I’m not anti-Trump. I’m just moving on,” Sununu said.
New Hampshire Republicans are reeling from the losses in November. Trump-endorsed Don Bolduc, who made false claims about children using litter boxes at schools, lost to Sen. Maggie Hassan, and Democrats defeated Republicans in both House races.
“The core of the people inclined to be enthusiastic about Trump got behind Bolduc and lost. They got behind Karoline Leavitt for the House and lost. And they get behind [Bob] Burns for the other House seat and lost,” said Republican Bill Bowen, one of the delegates who are to vote Saturday for a new state party chair. “That has to peel off some portion of that enthusiasm.”
Meta lifts Trump's 2-year suspension on Facebook, InstagramJan. 25, 202305:06
Then there are the haters.
Renee Plummer, a longtime influential Republican in New Hampshire who describes herself now as bipartisan, had a more urgent reaction when she was informed of Trump’s coming visit.
“No, no, stay away! Oh, my God,” Plummer said. “There are a lot of people who were with him before who are now saying: ‘Don’t come near us.’
“Give the United States a break.”
Conversations about Trump are blazing across a state whose voters are deathly serious about their first-in-the-nation perch in the presidential primary calendar. Like the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primary can anoint political underdogs, then launch them to elevated status in other parts of the country. In 2016, Trump won the New Hampshire GOP primary with 35 percent of the vote.
“There’s an openness to a new generation of Republican leaders — that’s not to say that the president could not win. I do not think it’s a foregone conclusion,” said New Hampshire Republican Mike Dennehy, a onetime adviser to the late presidential candidate Sen. John McCain. “He’s going to have to earn it.”
Republicans say Trump would do best to engage in the retail politicking he was slow to embrace in 2016, when he was far more likely to hold large-scale rallies. The gesture would signal respect for the state and possibly endear those in the party who are moving away from him.
This time, Republicans say, Trump is doing it right with his first New Hampshire visit. He's attending the annual meeting of the state GOP, where he'll have a built-in crowd of hundreds of Republicans who will vote on the next state party chair — although some skeptics surmised he was targeting an event in New Hampshire where he’d ensure a solid turnout.
“He broke the mold a little bit. He wasn’t a candidate who would hold town hall meetings or walk the streets talking to small businesses,” Dennehy said. “If he’s smart, I think he takes it down a notch, takes it down to the people more, walking main streets, holding some smaller house parties.
“He’s got a core of support that is going to be with him no matter whether he’s indicted, whether there’s a scandal, whether he’s convicted — whether none of that happens,” former state GOP chair Steve Duprey, a former Republican national committeeman, added. “He has a strong base, and they’re going to show up and vote. That base is a potent force in the primary schedule.”
Still, Duprey said, Trump’s support is eroding, and if Sununu does get into the race, he’s likely to carve out a lane and emerge among the top Republicans in the state “and get that bounce.”
Sununu also threw some shade on DeSantis, doubting his chances in New Hampshire and diverging from the growing number of Republicans who see him as an attractive Trump alternative.
“I don’t know if I’d use the word ‘alternative.’ Maybe it’s ‘2.0’ or ‘the next version of,’” Sununu said of DeSantis. He argued that DeSantis’ style, which he depicted as authoritarian and big-government, wouldn't mesh well with the “Live Free or Die” state. And he said he feared how DeSantis might use his executive powers to beat up "woke private companies” if he were president.
“I don’t want to set up a precedent. I get very concerned that we’re perpetuating ourselves down a very dangerous path,” Sununu added.
Representatives for Trump and DeSantis declined to comment.
Burns, one of the congressional candidates who lost in November and who worked for Trump’s campaign in 2016, said he knows many state Republicans who dismiss Trump, predict he will lose and say the party needs to move on.
“Trump is gonna win the primary,” Burns said. “And all those Republicans are going to come back and kiss his butt.”
CORRECTION (Jan. 26, 2:45 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misattributed a quote about how Donald Trump “broke the mold a bit.” Mike Dennehy said it, not Steve Duprey.