Ask Granite State Republicans about the mood at the First in the Nation Summit last weekend, and the one word that doesn’t come up is “happy.”
“Frustrated” was a frequent choice. “Cranky” was another.
Perhaps the best word is “unsettled.” These Republican activists sense Joe Biden’s failures — highlighted by the new conflict in the Middle East — are creating a moment of political opportunity. But they have serious doubts about their party’s ability to seize it.
The source of those doubts? Donald Trump.
“If I had to pick one word to describe the mood, I’d say ‘resigned,'” said one GOP insider. “After what we saw this weekend, there’s a real sense that the primary is over. And there’s nothing we can do about it.”
People who see the GOP as “Trump’s Party” may be surprised to learn there was a significant level of anti-Trump sentiment at the Nashua Sheraton. It was not the outraged anger of the Never Trumpers but rather the slump-shouldered gloom of activists and candidates who have glimpsed a future of trying to win elections in the Granite State with Trump at the top of the ticket.
Polls show Trump is very popular with local Republican voters. But interviews show the more a Republican is involved in campaigns and party activism, the more likely he or she is to have concerns — even as Trump fans — about his candidacy.
Jack Farrington of Hampton said that although he supported Trump in 2016 and 2020, he would like someone else as the 2024 nominee because he would “like to beat Joe Biden.”
“I think the election comes down to independent voters, and it’s such a small margin to win an election, and I think [Trump] turns off enough people that he makes it unlikely for him to win,” Farrington said. “I don’t think it’s impossible for him to win. I just think almost every other candidate has a better shot, and I want whoever has the best shot at winning.”
A longtime GOP operative told NHJournal the reoccurring conversations over the weekend featured “strong anti-Trump sentiment and a frustration that his supporters don’t seem to be reachable. Biden is just so, so bad, and there was lots of talk about how we are going to miss a big opportunity if Trump is the guy.”
David DeWitt of Dublin said Trump can’t unite the country because “people just really don’t like him, and there’s no way to bring those people around.”
He said he believes Americans “are longing for some stability,” something voters aren’t seeing from the GOP right now.
Attendees’ mood was undoubtedly impacted by the horrific news coming from Israel. In addition to the terrible human cost, it is hard not to note the political impact as well. On the one hand, Hamas’ attack adds to the argument that Biden’s incompetence and weakness are provoking America’s enemies into action. On the other, the inability of Republicans to even pick a speaker of the House from within their own ranks reveals a party that is unprepared to lead.
The news also highlights the Republican Party’s unsettled stance on foreign policy. Gone are the days of the Global War on Terror, when Republicans were solidly behind military action to target enemies abroad before they could reach America’s shores. The debate over foreign policy now has Republicans attempting to reconcile their opposition to supporting Ukraine from violent invaders with support for Israel doing the same.
“America First” isolationism isn’t nearly as appealing when terrorists are beheading babies and gunning down kids at a concert.
Perhaps that was one reason why Nikky Haley, an unapologetic proponent of America’s role as leader of the free world, was one of the few candidates to get any buzz out of the summit. “There’s some hope that Haley may get some momentum with the focus going to world issues,” one GOP strategist said.
Ron DeSantis, on the other hand, left many attendees underwhelmed. “Huge disappointment,” several attendees said. If there is a viable alternative to Trump — and many Republicans harbor serious doubts that one exists — DeSantis is still viewed by some campaign experts as the most likely choice. His financial resources and issues set would seem to fit the bill.
But the clock is ticking, and DeSantis still doesn’t seem to be connecting with voters.
One scene appeared to summarize the mood of these Republican activists. Chris Christie was asked by an audience member why he hadn’t called out Trump for his election denials and lack of honesty.
“This is the first time I’ve been accused of not being tough enough on Trump,” Christie shot back. He then repeated his previous public statements that Trump lost the election, that nobody has presented evidence of significant voter fraud, etc. The crowd didn’t like it — but they didn’t push back, either. There were a few grumbles and some groans that the topic was being brought up again. “We should be talking about Biden,” one woman said as Christie spoke.
But the days of shouting down Trump critics are over. On “Stop the steal,” the mood of Republicans appears to have moved from “How dare you deny it?” to “Why bother debating it? Trump’s going to be the nominee, and we’re stuck with it. What are you going to do?”
There was another source for the unsettled mood of the summit audience, and that’s the belief — rarely spoken but widely held — that something is going to happen. The seemingly inevitable storyline of Biden vs. Trump 2.0 isn’t going to be the tale of 2024. There are spoilers ahead.
Is that the GOP’s likely future or merely a forlorn hope?
Paul Schibbelhute of Nashua said he didn’t see “a chance in hell” of Trump winning the White House in 2024.
“The independents aren’t going to vote for him. I mean, he already lost by 7 million votes last time – how’s he going to make up that difference?”