For several months this year, Ron DeSantis seemed poised for a breakthrough in New Hampshire. Longtime allies of his chief opponent, Donald Trump, were shopping around for alternatives.
Multiple efforts sprang up to draft DeSantis into the race. The Florida governor topped Trump in one New Hampshire poll in January, and he sold out the state GOP’s biggest annual fundraising dinner in April, helping the party bring in a record haul.
But in the month since DeSantis formally entered the presidential race, he’s stumbled in the first-in-the-nation primary state.
He got dragged into a tit-for-tat endorsement battle with Trump that generated some media attention but little measurable increase in support. His first visit to the state as a presidential candidate drew more headlines for what he didn’t do — take questions from voters — than the retail politicking he did. And that’s on top of polls that had already swung back in Trump’s favor.
There are signs that even inside DeSantis’s orbit, they see New Hampshire as a challenge. The super PAC that’s effectively running his operation has been off the air in New Hampshire since May — temporarily, its founder told POLITICO — while running a new ad in Iowa and South Carolina this week.
And DeSantis’ visit to the state Tuesday is being met with backlash from a major Republican women’s group.
The New Hampshire Federation of Republican Women released a statement Thursday slamming DeSantis for planning an event at the same time as their annual fundraising lunch — an event Trump is headlining. The group asked him to reschedule.
“It has always been a New Hampshire hallmark to be considerate when scheduling events,” the group’s events director, Christine Peters, said in a statement. “To have a candidate come in and distract from the most special event [the women’s group] holds in the year is unprecedented.”
DeSantis world was quick to dismiss the group’s complaints, saying their event shouldn’t be a distraction since it’s in a different part of the state and at a different time than when Trump is speaking, and that the federation’s soiree is already sold out. They noted that two of the group’s members resigned over the statement targeting DeSantis, with the PAC blasting out their tweets. One of them, Kate Day, the now-former public relations chair, told POLITICO the federation erred when it “broke its neutrality in criticizing” DeSantis.
But DeSantis’ opponents were already weaponizing the exchange.
“If there’s one thing you don’t do in New Hampshire, it’s piss off the grassroots women,” said an adviser to a rival candidate granted anonymity to speak freely. “Don’t mess with them, they remember everything. Rookie move.”
Out of the four early voting states, libertarian-leaning New Hampshire was never the most logical fit for the conservative, culture-war wielding Florida governor. He tacitly acknowledged as much by removing any reference to the six-week abortion ban he signed in Florida from his stump speeches in the state, where the majority of voters identify as “pro-choice.”
But as the leading contender against Trump nationally, expectations for DeSantis remain sky-high — even in New Hampshire. And some Republicans in the state were dumbfounded that DeSantis would walk into a skirmish with a prominent GOP group.
“It’s the worst strategic move he has exhibited thus far,” New Hampshire-based Republican strategist Mike Dennehy said. “It’s just stupid, actually. You don’t take on the New Hampshire Federation of Republican Women.”
He added, “If he doesn’t turn it around, it could be death by a thousand cuts.”
DeSantis’ stumbles may say as much about Trump’s strength in New Hampshire as they do about the governor’s own shortcomings.
The state handed Trump his first primary win in 2016, and he remains widely popular among the conservative electorate there. It’s a problem vexing every candidate running for the GOP nomination. But as the closest competitor, there is additional pressure on DeSantis to perform there.
And Trump and DeSantis are on a collision course Tuesday, when they have near-dueling events in New Hampshire. DeSantis is set to stump in Hollis just two hours before Trump is expected to address the women’s group in Concord.
One problem for DeSantis in New Hampshire is that his culture-war platform has more natural appeal in Iowa, which has a history of nominating the most socially conservative candidates, and South Carolina. His team also has its eyes on Nevada, where he recently headlined an annual event alongside one of his top supporters and personal friends — former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt.
Another issue for DeSantis in the Granite State: The anti-Trump lane is crowded there. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has a built-in base of support in the state from his 2016 bid, plans to run a New Hampshire-focused campaign and is starting to nip at DeSantis’ heels — having climbed to third place in at least one survey.
On the flip side, the Trump-aligned super PAC MAGA Inc. is flooding the airwaves and voters’ mailboxes with attacks on DeSantis. And Trump had a long head start on organizing in the state, staffing up early with the hiring of former New Hampshire GOP Chair Steve Stepanek in January. The former president’s team has already identified 192,000 people in New Hampshire who had donated or signed up online saying they wanted to do something with the campaign, or attended his rallies over the last six years.
“Right now, Trump’s the guy to beat in New Hampshire — that’s just a fact,” said Dave Carney, a New Hampshire-based Republican strategist. “It doesn’t mean he can’t be beat. But right now, no, no one’s beating him.”
DeSantis’ campaign is showing some signs of recalibrating. The governor took questions from voters at an event in South Carolina this past week and intends to do the same in the town-hall style event he’s planning for Hollis on Tuesday, his campaign said.
Still, New Hampshire is a hard state to predict. Independent voters, who can pull ballots in either party’s primary in New Hampshire and who typically skew more moderate, could be major players in the Republican contest without a serious fight to draw them to the Democratic side. The state’s popular Republican governor — Chris Sununu — is a wildcard whose eventual endorsement could help or hurt DeSantis.
And even as DeSantis was being dinged by the women’s group, some Republicans were dismissing the federation’s salvo as “feigned outrage” — particularly after some of the organization’s members began speaking out against the statement.
“It’s not uncommon for candidates to have competing events,” former New Hampshire GOP Chair Fergus Cullen, a Never-Trumper who is unaligned in the primary, said. “There is no foul here.”
The DeSantis campaign declined to directly answer questions about the women’s group. But it defended what it called a “top-notch organization in the state,” telling POLITICO it has hired as DeSantis’ state director Michael Gorecki, who managed former Trump aide Karoline Leavitt’s congressional campaign in the state last year and did field work for Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential bid in 2016.
And Never Back Down, the group effectively running the governor’s operation in the state, downplayed the fact that it hasn’t aired a television ad in the expensive Boston and New Hampshire market since May.
Instead, the group’s founder Ken Cuccinelli said, the PAC is focusing on its ground game, hiring Ross Berry, a state representative and former executive director for the state GOP, as its state director in New Hampshire and relying on a mix of paid staff and volunteers to knock doors and build support.
“Our priority is making sure our ground game is executed everywhere and New Hampshire is literally in the top priority tier for that. … The other media efforts are secondary,” Cuccinelli said in an interview, adding that “there will be more” ads in New Hampshire.
Asked if DeSantis could beat Trump in New Hampshire, Cuccinelli said: “I think he can, yes. We’re several months out. I don’t want to start placing bets. But this is a state in play for the governor.”
Source : Politico