Nashua is known as the Gate City, and Gov. Ron DeSantis’s appearance Friday night appeared to be an opening to a new approach for his campaign.
Perhaps it was the influence of debate-prep wizard Brett O’Donnell, who is reportedly helping DeSantis get ready for Wednesday’s face-off in Wisconsin. Or maybe the weeks he has spent doing retail politics have smoothed out some of the candidate’s rough edges. Whatever the cause, the effect Friday night was a more relatable Ron DeSantis, who talked more about himself and less about his bullet-point list of Florida policies.
“It’s the best I’ve ever seen him, absolutely,” said Matthew Bartlett, a veteran GOP operative and Nashua native.
DeSantis spoke at the “Steak Out” fundraiser for the Nashua GOP, an embattled organization in a city that votes overwhelmingly Democrat. Before his speech, he worked the crowd, shaking hands and taking selfies, chatting with voters as the steak dinners were served.
Once onstage, DeSantis dropped the opening lines he used at previous Granite State campaign stops, pledging to “send Joe Biden back to his basement in Delaware” on a “permanent vacation.” Instead, DeSantis told the story of being a college baseball player in New England (he carefully avoided using the words “Yale” and “Harvard”) and being invited to make his first trip to Fenway, where he met manager Jimy Williams. He also talked about the excitement in Boston over the Red Sox’ amazing comeback in the ALCS in 2004 when they overcame a 3-game deficit to the New York Yankees.
“It was such an exciting time. The only disappointment was when they swept St. Louis, so they didn’t win the World Series back in Boston.”
It was a striking difference from the rhetoric-heavy, bullet-point programming of his previous Granite State stump speeches. Another difference: DeSantis saved the “Florida Report Card” portion of his comments for the end, instead addressing issues more broadly and with a more personal touch.
When he talked about his plans to overhaul the FBI and the Department of Justice, for example, DeSantis didn’t launch into the usual rhetoric about a “two-tiered system of justice.” Instead, he used another baseball story to set up the topic — the 2017 gunman’s attack on the Republicans’ congressional baseball team practice.
“We were out there at practice, and this deranged left-wing lunatic shot [U.S. Rep.] Steve Scalise and was trying to take out a lot of members of the congressional baseball team,” DeSantis recounted. “We left a little early to get back to Capitol Hill, but as we were going to the car, this guy asked one of my teammates, ‘Are those Republicans or Democrats out there?’
“My teammate said, ‘They’re Republicans.’ We got in the car and pulled away. But he walked to his van, pulled out a rifle, set up by third base, and started shooting everyone he could. They looked at his social media, and he was a raving left-wing lunatic: Hated Trump, hated Republicans, was a big Bernie Sanders guy, and all this stuff.
“But the FBI termed that attempted assassination ‘suicide by cop.’ It took them years to admit it was an attempted political assassination,” DeSantis said. “That’s what’s going on; their worldview is so skewed in these agencies. They view a lot of people that have other than liberal views as being potential threats to the country. Are you kidding me?
“So with me, on day one, it’s a new FBI director — we’re clearing house.”
It was a story people who have attended multiple DeSantis events in New Hampshire said they had never heard before.
The Florida governor also focused on the flow of illegal drugs across the southern border. He included his previous “stone-cold dead” threats for drug-dealing cartel members, but he also told the story of speaking to an “Angel Mom” when he visited the border.
“Her son, an 18- 0r 19-year-old kid, took one Percocet. It happened to be laced with fentanyl, and he overdosed and died. That story is being replicated in communities all around this country. Not just at the southern border but here in New England.”
It was a story that resonates in New Hampshire, where opioid overdoses are at a five-year high, and particularly in Nashua, where fatal opioid overdoses are up 10 percent over last year, first responders report.
DeSantis also injected a more hopeful tone throughout. He recalled Ronald Reagan’s phrase, “a time for choosing,” and said that “decline was a choice,” rather than declaring America a doomed nation as many of his competitors do.
Based on available polling, there is no doubt that the DeSantis campaign is in decline, having lost about half its support in the past few months. And the conversation among many attendees before the speech centered on the possibility that former President Donald Trump could be the nominee and what that would mean to the New Hampshire GOP.
“I’m with DeSantis,” Nashua Republican Paul Schibbelhute told NHJournal after the speech. “But I’m a Republican, and I’m going to support our nominee no matter who it is. I’ll be holding signs for our candidates on Election Day.”
As a locally active Republican, Schibbelhute said one reason he was backing DeSantis over Trump was the impact of the top of the ticket on the down-ballot races. “If it’s Trump, it could be a real uphill climb for our candidates.”
State Rep. Jeanine Notter (R-Merrimack) has endorsed DeSantis and called his speech “outstanding.”
Asked why she’s backing the Florida governor and not Trump, she simply replied, “The House.”
Concerns about the impact of Trump’s nomination on GOP races in purple New Hampshire are not new. Gov. Chris Sununu has repeatedly said that if Republicans nominate Trump again, “We’ll get slaughtered in the general election.”
DeSantis didn’t offer such a dire prediction, but he did repeat something he has said at nearly every campaign stop in the Granite State: “We’ve developed a culture of losing in our party. We as Republicans need to start winning again.”