MANCHESTER, New Hampshire — New Hampshire gave Donald Trump his first presidential primary victory. Some prominent New Hampshire Republicans aren’t sure he deserves a second.
Steve Duprey, who represents New Hampshire at the Republican National Committee, won’t say whether he’ll vote for Trump in 2020. Former GOP chairwoman Jennifer Horn, who led the party during the president’s first run, is actively working for a Trump primary challenger. And former Republican Sen. Gordon Humphrey is calling for Trump’s impeachment.
Even among the detractors, few believe Trump will lose New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary next year. But in sharp contrast to Republicans in other states, some New Hampshire GOP leaders are actively encouraging — or at the very least failing to discourage — Trump primary challengers.
That’s even as the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee aggressively work to prevent a serious primary challenge for fear that it would hurt the president’s re-election chances.
Duprey, in an unusual move for an RNC member, lashed out at Trump this week for continuing to criticize the late Sen. John McCain, who was popular in New Hampshire and died last August of cancer.
“President Donald Trump isn’t worthy to carry even John McCain’s Navy cap,” Duprey wrote on Facebook. “In no measure is he the patriot or public servant that John McCain was. Ever.”
In a subsequent interview, Duprey refused to say whether he would vote for Trump in next year’s election, citing the state’s tradition of staying neutral in primary elections to help preserve its first-in-the-nation status.
“My first allegiance is to the presidential primary,” Duprey said. “All candidates should be treated equal whether they’re the incumbent or not.”
Trump hasn’t visited New Hampshire since March 2018, when he delivered a speech about opioids. Vice President Mike Pence visited shortly afterward to fundraise for New Hampshire Republicans. And as Trump crisscrossed the country to help Republicans ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, New Hampshire never made the cut.
Republicans held the governor’s office but suffered devastating losses elsewhere. Democrats won both the state’s congressional races and seized control of the state House, Senate and state executive council for the first time in nearly a decade.
While Trump has avoided the state for a year, the president’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump, a senior campaign adviser, is set to be the special guest at a New Hampshire GOP event early next month. That’ll be followed by an appearance from the president’s former campaign manager, New Hampshire resident Corey Lewandowski, at a county Republican dinner days later.
“They’ve been creating the kind of environment that attracts a challenger, not one that heads one off,” said Fergus Cullen, another former state Republican Party chairman who opposes Trump.
The state’s No. 1 Republican, Gov. Chris Sununu, told The Associated Press that he would vote for Trump’s re-election, but he isn’t discouraging a Trump primary challenge either.
The New Hampshire governor shared the stage at a recent event with former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, a Republican, who has launched a committee to explore a possible Trump primary challenge.
Sununu said he’d be equally welcoming to prospective primary challengers such as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan or former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who are openly weighing primary bids.
“I don’t think a Republican primary would hurt the president at all,” Sununu said.
He praised some of Trump’s policies, but looking at 2020, he condemned the kind of slash-and-burn politics the president regularly employs against opponents.
“It can’t be about personal attacks. It can’t be about, you know, trying to just tear people apart for your own personal political opportunism and game at the end of the day,” Sununu said.
He added: “The media and certain folks don’t like how he says things and whatnot. And I agree with that. I don’t like how he says things either sometimes. I’m a big believer that sometimes how you say something is just as important as what you say. It is a very different style, and we don’t mesh with our styles.”
A University of New Hampshire poll found late last month that roughly 80 percent of New Hampshire Republicans approve of Trump’s job performance, which is consistent with national polling.
Yet there were clear warning signs for the Republican president.
Just 56 percent of New Hampshire Republicans plan to vote for Trump in a 2020 Republican primary; 44 percent say they’ll vote for another candidate or are undecided.
Meanwhile, the Trump campaign is getting a vocal supporter in the state Republican Party headquarters, where former Trump state campaign chairman Stephen Stepanek was recently elected to serve as the state GOP chairman.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Stepanek has been far less supportive of a Trump primary challenge than the longer-established Republican leaders in the state. In a recent interview, he dismissed Weld’s chances in 2020.
“I don’t anticipate that anybody’s going to come in and be able to generate the kind of support the president has here,” Stepanek said. “But they’re more than welcome to test the waters.”
Horn, who held Stepanek’s job during the 2016 campaign, now works as an adviser to Weld.
“There’s no doubt he’s been the most destructive, most divisive president in modern times,” she said of Trump.
Weld is also getting help from Stuart Stevens, a former top adviser to 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. While Romney, now a Utah senator, has stayed out of the 2020 primary debate so far, another former Romney senior aide, Russ Schriefer, is advising Hogan, who recently told the AP he would only run if he has a legitimate path to victory.
Despite all the Trump criticism, however, few New Hampshire Republicans expect Trump to lose the 2020 GOP primary, which will likely be held in February. A sense of hopelessness has settled in among some of Trump’s GOP critics.
Bob Purcell, a 68-year-old business owner from New Hampshire, lived in Massachusetts during Weld’s time as governor and spoke glowingly of the Republican. That doesn’t mean he thinks Weld has much of a chance against Trump.
“If I were spending my own money and I were Bill Weld, I would not run,” Purcell said.
A primary challenge against Trump would be “daunting,” added Tom Rath, a longtime RNC delegate and former New Hampshire attorney general who backed Kasich in 2016 and would likely do so again if he runs.
A determined effort to unseat a sitting president of one’s own party, Rath said, takes money, effort and a strong sense of commitment.
“There’s a sense among a lot of people, ‘What’s the use?’” Rath said.