Donald Trump won his first-ever election, nearly seven years ago, right here in New Hampshire.
Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) had all the endorsements, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had the family name and the money, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) had the conservative credentials, and Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) had the media affection.
But Donald Trump had the voters — the alienated, ignored “deplorable” base of the GOP.
It wasn’t even close. Trump’s 100,735 vote total was more than twice second-place Kasich’s, and more votes than Bush, Cruz, and Christie combined. And he did it without the support of any of the Granite State GOP big names or the support of the party establishment.
That following November, Trump came closer to carrying New Hampshire than any Republican nominee since George W. Bush, who won it in 2000. Trump never polled at or above 50 percent here. But for Republicans, New Hampshire was ‘Trump Country.’
Fast forward to today. The First-in-the-Nation primary is about a year away and the Trump talk among grassroots Republicans is much different. Instead of the excitement of an insurgency, there is confusion and fatigue. Yes, there are still some diehard Donald fans, but it is also clear many of his ardent supporters are now more “wait and see” primary voters.
It’s not 2016 all over again.
And there are signs Trump’s feelings about the Granite State may have changed, too. A new Politico report says Trump’s first big campaign event since his poorly-received campaign launch will be in South Carolina, not New Hampshire. Trump is staffing up in that southern lynchpin state — as well as in Iowa, where “Trump has also hired a pair of Iowa-based strategists, Alex Latcham and Eric Branstad, come out in support of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status for its caucuses and took out a full-page advertisement in the Iowa GOP’s annual legislative breakfast program,” Politico reported.
In New Hampshire? Not so much. The Politico piece only mentions one Granite Stater in passing, outgoing state party chair Steve Stepanek. Many in the state party assume Stepanek, who was a Trump co-chair and convention delegate in 2016, will be a key player for his campaign today. But on Sunday night, Stepanek lost the town GOP committee election to represent it as a voting delegate to the state convention. The days of simply being “Trump enough to win” may be on the wane.
Bob Burns, who was a Trump delegate to the Republican National Convention, doesn’t agree. He says that while the Republican insiders and talking heads have turned on Trump, the grassroots is still with them. Asked about the lack of local excitement around Trump’s third campaign for the White House, Burns said to be patient.
“I expect his campaign to be active here soon. Go to the North Country, you’ll see a lot of Trump flags still flying. The insiders are anti-Trump, but Republican voters are still with him. Look at my race.”
Burns’ bid for the Second Congressional District nomination was built entirely on his embrace of Trump and Trump’s brash political style. And while he narrowly won the nomination, he did it with just 35 percent of the vote. Several longtime Granite State Republicans — who spoke on background out of concern about backlash from Trump supporters — said they are hearing at their town and county meetings some Trump-supporting Republicans regret nominating such a strongly Trump-friendly slate in September’s primaries.
“We were probably going to lose anyway,” one local GOP activist said, “but we lost and looked crazy doing it.”
Talking to 2016 Trump supporters, the most common answer about their plans for 2024 is “wait and see.” State Rep. Fred Doucette, another 2016 convention delegate, gave what could be construed as a very careful answer: “He’s the only announced candidate, right? So of course, I’m supporting him.”
Political pros say three events have impacted the Granite State GOP’s view of Trump. One was the 2022 Republican blowout in the midterms. The swing from waiting for a 2010-type red wave to a wipeout of every federal candidate — and nearly losing the New Hampshire House — left many Republicans shell-shocked. New Hampshire Republicans may like Trump, but they really hate losing.
The other was Trump’s recent stunt surrounding the release of NFT trading cards featuring self-aggrandizing images of the former president.
“It was impossible to drown out the amount of flak President Trump generated with his ‘big announcement,’ which wasn’t some major policy initiative but instead was him trying to hawk digital Trump superhero action cards,” said Rockingham County GOP chair Jason Grosky. “He’s the one who chose to declare his run for president so early. He has so much ammunition to work with, and good attention to try to generate, but I’m not seeing him take advantage of the opportunity.
“And that’s in contrast with what Gov. [Ron] Desantis (R-Fla.) is doing while not running for president.”
The third was more under the radar but perhaps the most damaging: Releasing a statement blaming pro-life Republicans for the midterm election debacle.
”It wasn’t my fault that the Republicans didn’t live up to expectations in the MidTerms,” Trump posted on Truth Social earlier this month. “I was 233-20! It was the ’abortion issue,’ poorly handled by many Republicans, especially those that firmly insisted on No Exceptions, even in the case of Rape, Incest, or Life of the Mother, that lost large numbers of Voters.
“Also, the people that pushed so hard, for decades, against abortion, got their wish from the U.S. Supreme Court, & just plain disappeared, not to be seen again.”
Trump’s support among evangelicals has been one of the pillars of his strength in the party. There was immediate pushback from those social conservatives, who were always strange political bedfellows for a candidate like Trump. And with Roe v. Wade overturned, what “transactional politics” deal can Trump offer to win back their support?
Still, some Granite State Republicans told NHJournal they are still all in.
“I’m still supporting President Trump more than ever and his grassroots supporters are behind him 100 percent,” said 2016 Trump delegate Paula Johnson of Nashua. “It might be rolling out slowly, but it will pick up fast. Many of us are saying we need a Trump rally or two (or three!). Many people can’t wait to be part of the Trump campaign once again.”
And sources close to the Trump national campaign say a Granite State event is in the works.
Still, 2016 delegate Josh Whitehouse, who was also a Trump staffer, admits the former president has some work to do to get the base back on his side. “The grassroots is mixed right now. But when Trump is back on his message, they’ll be back on board.”