Trump-aligned Republican activists in New Hampshire are quietly maneuvering to fortify his standing and avoid a potentially disruptive primary challenge in 2020.
In the most far-reaching move, Donald Trump’s allies are looking to scrap the state GOP’s tradition of remaining neutral in the primary — to clear the way for an endorsement of the president. They’re also moving to install one of their own as head of the state Republican Party.
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The efforts wouldn’t stop a moderate Republican like John Kasich from taking on Trump. But they are designed to shield the president from the kind of damage that a serious primary fight could do to him heading into the general election. An endorsement would provide much more than just a verbal statement of support: It would enable the New Hampshire Republican Party to throw the weight of its entire apparatus behind Trump against any GOP rival.
A top strategist to Kasich said the attempt to stack the deck for the incumbent will have no bearing on whether the outgoing Ohio governor decides to run, or on his ultimate success given the significant bloc of independent voters there.
But the early moves on behalf of Trump, which are being closely monitored by the president’s 2020 reelection campaign and outside advisers, demonstrate the degree to which the state party has coalesced behind the president and is working to head off a serious problem before one emerges.
One of the endorsement measure’s proponents, Bruce Breton, said he was motivated by the “hundreds of Trump supporters” he’s heard from since he declined to seek the state GOP’s vice chairmanship because of the “flawed” neutrality requirement.
“They don’t want [a] primary fight,” Breton, who is close to former Trump campaign manager and New Hampshire native Corey Lewandowski, said of his state cohorts. “I think it will galvanize the president’s supporters.”
The alarm among Trump backers about a potential primary brawl is rooted in history. Two presidents who failed to win reelection were pushed into competitive primary fights in New Hampshire: George H.W. Bush by Pat Buchanan in 1992 and Jimmy Carter by Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1980. President Lyndon Johnson dropped his 1968 reelection bid after Sen. Eugene McCarthy finished a close second in New Hampshire’s primary and prompted Sen. Robert Kennedy to jump into the race.
Trump’s aides say they aren’t behind the moves to help him in New Hampshire. Regardless, Kasich strategist John Weaver said none of the maneuvers would dissuade the departing Ohio governor and longtime Trump critic from running.
Kasich has visited New Hampshire twice in recent months and has been courting party leaders and other officials since he finished a distant second there to Trump in 2016. While Weaver offered no timeline for a Kasich decision on 2020, he cast the proposed bylaw change as a sign of desperation coming from the president’s camp and compared the tactics to those of a schoolyard bully.
“This is all they know,” Weaver told POLITICO.
In an interview, Breton said he hasn’t discussed the proposal with Lewandowski or any formal aide to the Trump campaign. But he added that it’s caught the attention of Trump backers across the nation, which he hopes will translate to local support when he brings it before the party for review in January. He anticipates it will take a position at a meeting later this spring.
“The [Make America Great Again] crowd just keeps tweeting it,” Breton said. “People have been sending me messages from all over the country.”
“They don’t want change,” he added. “They want four more years.”
The possible modification comes amid a series of recent developments in the Granite State that Trump aides and allies view as beneficial to the president — and demonstrate sustained loyalty after he lost the state to Hillary Clinton. This week, New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, a 21-term incumbent who faced criticism for serving on Trump’s since-disbanded “voter fraud” commission last year, survived a challenge by a well-funded fellow Democrat who sought to capitalize on Gardner’s Trump ties.
Though Trump privately favored Gardner, New Hampshire Republicans said the vote came down to the state elections official’s advocacy for staying first in the primary sweepstakes, decades of impartial service to the state and ability to attract moderate Democrats.
Gardner backers contend he joined the Trump voter fraud commission to ensure New Hampshire had a voice in the process. Also earlier, they noted that Gardner took aim at Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that voters were being bused into the toss-up state from bluer points south to boost the number of Democratic voters.
Another shift in the works could prove more instrumental come 2020. Trump backers there are also pointing to the president’s large war chest to fend off challengers while cheering the anticipated election of longtime presidential supporter Stephen Stepanek as state GOP chair. He would become the 12th party leader since 2001 — a measure of deep instability compared with the state’s Democratic Party leadership ranks. Stepanek, a former state lawmaker and power broker in the state, lined up behind Trump in early 2015 and has remained loyal to him during some of the roughest patches of his campaign and White House.
Asked whether Stepanek’s elevation to party chair will embolden Trump supporters, state Rep. Al Baldasaro, another early backer of the businessman-turned-president, said “Big time.” (Stepanek has pledged to remain neutral and serve as a unifier for Republicans as long as the state party rules remain.)
“Steve Stepanek is a go-to guy that makes things happen,” Baldasaro said. “He’s a well-respected conservative.”
Baldasaro showed less deference to Kasich, whom he dismissed as a “RINO”— Republican in name only.
“He’s got to realize the American people are winning so many times with Trump on so many issues that [Kasich doesn’t] stand a chance.”
Baldasaro also had tough words for Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who visited the state amid increasing speculation that he might challenge Trump after he leaves the Senate. “I think Flake is trying to make a name for himself. He can’t even get elected in his own state,” Baldasaro said of Flake’s decision not to seek reelection in 2018, allowing the seat to fall into Democratic hands.
Several New Hampshire Republicans said a more unified pro-Trump position from the party would attract attention from Trump himself, who would in turn come to their aid on in-state political priorities. But not everybody wants to see a break from its time-honored neutral posture. Outgoing GOP Chairman Wayne MacDonald warned the rank and file not to allow the party to be overcome by partisanship and move too closely to the incumbent president.
Ray Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, told POLITICO that while “one can have a favorite in your heart, you still have to be fair and neutral.”
“If the Republican Party becomes an arm of the Trump reelection campaign, that’s certainly problematic,” Buckley said of the GOP measure, which is still in the crafting stage.
It’s an open question whether the bylaw change will pass. Jim Merrill, who spearheaded incoming Sen. Mitt Romney’s two presidential campaigns in New Hampshire, said he doesn’t think it will. Taking stock of the state, Merrill said there seems to be significant interest among Republican voters for a primary contest, noting Kasich’s efforts to cultivate influential Republicans and GOP activists in the state.
Still, Merrill cautioned, “I have not seen anything other than talk that anything is happening.”