In the state that’s been hosting the first primary of America’s presidential campaign season in a century, the midterm election surprise in November seems to have changed everything.
Popular Republican Governor of New Hampshire Chris Sununu slid to an easy re-election – and was quick to brand former President Donald Trump a “loser”. Democratic state Senator Maggie Hassan, who is recognized as one of the most popular lawmakers in this month’s election, defeated her Trump-backed challenger by nearly 10 percentage points.
Meanwhile, an early poll conducted for the conservative Club for Growth, until recently thought to be allied with Mr. Trump, found that in New Hampshire, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis lists him as a potential Republican presidential nominee by 15 percentage points.
All of this in the two weeks that the red wave failed to reach the coast of this northeastern state. Mr Trump, who won the New Hampshire primary in 2016, may be gearing up for a repeat, but his prospects for the same result in 2024 have taken a serious blow.
Across the country, the eclipse of Mr. Trump’s efforts to win back the presidency is the topic of the month. And in truth, he was hurt by the poor performance of the candidates he selected in political marquee contests not only in New Hampshire but also in New York, Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Even Fox News pulled out of airing his formal announcement that he was running for another term before his rambling remarks were complete.
Trump’s fading — perhaps a phase, but a discernible dissipation of his power not only to influence voters but to monopolize the conversation — is particularly acute and significant in the Granite State. Though the primary is at least 14 months away, the contours of the struggle are only now beginning to emerge.
Like everything in New Hampshire’s presidential politics — with its history of toppling top candidates and reshuffling the political hierarchy — there are many uncertainties. In the peculiar physics of state politics, not only are there multiple moving parts, but they also collide with one another – creating forces that in previous primaries propelled some candidates to the rise (George HW Bush, 1988) while sending others to lapse ( Ted Cruz, 2016).
Elementary school 2024 is an extreme example. For Mr. Trump, this is the state where the word “but” has unusual power, all to his detriment.
Here, Mr Trump won the all-important 2016 primary — but lost the general election, both that year and in 2020. Here, the state-run Republican Party is a wholly owned subsidiary of Trump — but the party’s true leader, Mr Sununu, comes out as an unvarnished critic of the former presidents up.
Here remains a strong Republican voter core — but the real power brokers in the 2024 primary could be independents who have the ability in this state to vote for either party in the primary, and perhaps run a Republican vote just to oppose Mr. Trump agree . Here, homes amid farmland and buildings on rural side streets still bear Trump signs — but the former president’s opponents are finding new heart and emboldened.
“He hasn’t slipped into the past yet, but I’m surprised how many good and decent people still don’t see him for who he is,” said Mark Hounsell, a former Republican and former board member of Conway selectmen and his school board. “I’m a Bible-believing Christian, and it saddens me how many good Christians see him as some kind of messiah.”
And yet there is an additional “but”.
Mr. Trump’s base is what former Attorney General Thomas Rath, an established Republican who played a major role in the New Hampshire primary campaigns of Bob Dole and George W. Bush, describes as a “but-for” voter: “But for Trump,” he explained in an interview, “they would not vote.”
Equally important: But to Mr. Trump, they may not even be Republicans.
In August 2015, a few dozen people crowded into the cozy bar of the state’s venerable lobster trap restaurant on West Side Road to watch a debate party. The Trump campaign paid for the wings, the pizza, and the stuffed mushrooms. It was early in the battle for the 2016 New Hampshire primary, and Billy Cuccio, part of the family that runs the restaurant, was emerging as one of the staunchest of the local true believers. That was in large part because Mr. Trump, as he told me this evening, “does not say what is politically correct and does not apologize for it.”
Seven years later, Mr. Cuccio still believes, “The Republican Party doesn’t share my views as much as Trump does.”
On the surface, politics doesn’t seem to have made much headway here. The Establishment loathes Mr. Trump; his followers worship him.
But the truth behind all the theories about the former president is that his fortunes depend on a large field of contenders to split the vote so his 35 percent is enough to declare victory. This is the situation facing Republicans in New Hampshire.
Mr Trump’s apparent weakness could invite several challengers for the GOP nomination, including Mr Sununu. But the presence of many opponents in the race could prove to be a strength of the former president.