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Trump is on the march in New Hampshire — and looming over the race for governor

Former state Sen. Chuck Morse has endorsed Trump, while former U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte opposed him in 2016 but has pledged to back the GOP nominee this time.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte
Then-U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte on Capitol Hill in 2016. Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images file

ROCHESTER, N.H. — As former President Donald Trump railed against Chris Sununu at a rally Sunday night, one of the candidates vying to replace the New Hampshire governor stood with the rest of the crowd, looking on.  

Former state Sen. Chuck Morse stuck out amid the throng of grassroots Trump backers, and not just because of his bright white hair. Morse is also trying to join Trump on the November ballot, taking on former U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte in the Republican primary to replace Sununu, who opted not to run for a fifth two-year term.  

As Trump continues his march to the GOP nomination, Republican candidates such as Morse and Ayotte look like they'll once again have to grapple with what it means to run on the same ballot as the polarizing former president. That means trying to not only win support among GOP base voters who idolize Trump, but also among voters who can’t stand him.   

Republicans have struggled to strike that balance in New Hampshire and in battleground territory across the country. After Trump was elected in 2016, Democrats won both of New Hampshire’s Senate and House seats, controlling the congressional delegation for the first time in the state’s history. 

One of the seats the GOP lost was Ayotte's, as she and Trump both lost New Hampshire in 2016, after she pulled her support for him over an "Access Hollywood" tape. She has stayed under the radar in recent days as Trump barnstormed the state.

Morse, who is backing Trump in 2024, said in an interview before Trump’s rally that he hasn’t asked for a reciprocal endorsement, given the focus on the first-in-the-nation primary. But he demurred when asked if he would seek it after Tuesday’s contest. 

“Listen, I don’t know anyone that wouldn’t want the president, a former president’s, endorsement,” Morse said. “So we’re looking forward to seeing what he wants to do.” 

But Trump’s potential drag on down-ballot candidates is part of the argument Sununu has made against Trump since last year, and especially since he backed Nikki Haley, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in the presidential race. 

“The brand at the top really matters in terms of not just winning the presidency, but winning those congressional seats, winning the governorship, winning a school board seat,” Sununu told Fox News last month in a joint interview with Haley.  

“Don’t we want to all win our school board seats and not have Republicans have to try to explain away the top of the ticket?” said Sununu, a vocal Trump critic who last year blamed the former president for the GOP's poor record in recent special elections around the country. “When you remove the drama, you go forward.” 

Navigating Trump  

Trump is already starting to factor into the GOP primary for governor in New Hampshire, even though Republicans won’t pick their nominee until September.  

Morse decided to endorse Trump last month, and he’s spoken at three of the former president's rallies in the state. The former state Senate president said in an interview that his conversations with Granite Staters influenced his decision to endorse Trump.  

“They’ve made it real clear on the campaign trail,” Morse said. “They’re supporting President Trump because they want the borders closed. They want an energy policy that Trump delivered last time. And they’re certainly get and killed by inflation and they’re nervous about all of that.” 

Morse ran unsuccessfully for Senate last year, and the former president stayed neutral in that GOP primary, whose winner, Don Bolduc, falsely claimed that the 2020 was stolen from Trump, while Morse has dodged questions about the election.

Asked Sunday if Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 election, Morse said, "I'm all for moving forward on all those issues. I'm looking at 2024, I think that's what we have to do. And I certainly am paying attention to the fact that President Trump's working hard to get elected."

Reminded that he did not say yes or no, Morse said, "I gave you my answer. I'm working on 2024."

New Hampshire Senate Candidate Chuck Morse Campaigns On The State's Primary Election Day
Republican Senate candidate Chuck Morse greets supporters at a campaign stop in Bedford, N.H., on Sept. 13, 2022.Scott Eisen / Getty Images

In this race, Trump’s endorsement could make a difference for his supporters and his detractors.  

Scott Nelson, a registered Republican from Rochester, New Hampshire, said while leaving Sunday’s rally there that Trump’s endorsement “will definitely have some effect” on whom he decides to support in the governor’s race. Nelson, a 66-year-old retired carpenter, said it will be “a tough choice” between Ayotte and Morse.  

But for anti-Trump voters, his endorsement isn’t a good thing.  

“If Trump endorses them, well, then I’m probably not voting for them. Let’s put it that way,” Deborah Bailin, an undeclared voter, said after a Haley rally in Derry on Sunday. The 59-year-old attorney from Londonderry hasn’t decided on whom to support in the governor’s race, but described Ayotte as a “good senator.”   

Ayotte has had her own struggles with Trump. When she ran for re-election to the Senate in 2016, she withdrew her support after the "Access Hollywood" tape revealed Trump bragging about grabbing women’s genitals.   

“He’s talking about assault of women,” Ayotte said at the time, later adding, “I cannot vote for Donald Trump based on what he has said and done and the actions he talked about in those tapes. And I want my daughter to know that.” 

Ayotte went on to lose by 1,017 votes, though she won more votes than Trump, who lost the state by less than half a percentage point in 2016 and then by 7 points in 2020.    

It’s complicated  

This year, Ayotte has said she will support the GOP standard bearer, even if it’s Trump. She told WMUR in July, “Listen, I think Joe Biden has been a disaster, and I’ll support our Republican nominee for president.”  

Ayotte has been traveling around the state, but her campaign declined to make her available for an interview or respond to emailed questions.

Despite opposing Trump in 2016, Ayotte is finding support among Trump supporters, including Bruce Breton, a Windham selectman who co-chairs Trump’s campaign in New Hampshire.  

“She was a great senator,” he said in a phone interview. Her past anti-Trump comments didn’t affect Breton’s support. He noted that Ayotte worked with Trump to help secure Justice Neil Gorsuch’s seat on the Supreme Court, acting as Gorsuch’s guide through the Senate confirmation process.  

But some Trump supporters are still skeptical of the former senator. 

“Kelly Ayotte is another — I just want to call them dynasty Republicans. They are politicians, their career is politician,” Jim, a 67-year-old Republican who lives in Rochester and declined to share his last name, said as he left Trump’s rally Sunday.  

Morse, though, suggested that he might not bring up Ayotte’s past opposition to Trump.  

“I will leave that up to the voters. I think they’re gonna talk about it,” he said, later adding, “I’m gonna run on my record.” 

Some New Hampshire Republicans said Morse, who backed Jeb Bush in the 2016 primary, is not an ardent Trump supporter, either. State House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, who has endorsed Ayotte, said he knows Morse “does not care” for Trump.  

“For him to debase himself like that, I just feel bad for him,” Osborne said.  

“That’s Jason’s opinion. Jason obviously knows I’m a strong leader,” Morse responded, noting they served together in the Legislature.  

“He knows how hard I lead,” Morse said. “And I lead like a businessman, which is exactly how President Trump leads.”  

Democrats eye a win in November 

Democrats are optimistic that they can take over the governorship, though they have their own primary to settle, with former Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig and Executive Councilmember Cinde Warmington both vying for the nomination.  

New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley said in a phone interview that Democrats “absolutely” will tie the Republicans to Trump, especially on the abortion issue. 

“Kelly Ayotte and Chuck Morse both have such strong anti-choice records that they’re not going to be able to portray themselves as being any different than Donald Trump,” Buckley said.  

Morse and Ayotte have both voiced support for the state’s ban on abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy, with exceptions for the life of the mother and if a fetus has a fatal diagnosis. Ayotte told WMUR that she supports the current law and would not work to change it.   

Morse noted his support for the ban while serving in the state Senate, and said Sunday that he would also not support any changes, either to make it more or less restrictive.  

Republicans, meanwhile, are hopeful that the voters distinguish gubernatorial candidates from the top of the ticket.  

Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist who has worked on New Hampshire campaigns, said gubernatorial candidates are “not as tied to national issues.”  

“But at the end of the day, Trump dominates politics,” he added. "And every candidate, whether they’re running for federal or state office will be asked to condemn or support the likely remarks that he’ll make that are probably going to be controversial.”  

“And that’s the nature of modern politics,” Williams said.