Trump’s New Hampshire visit underscores divide among state’s Republicans

  • Former President Donald Trump speaks at the New Hampshire Republican State Committee's Annual Meeting on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023, in Salem, New Hampshire. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images/TNS) Scott Eisen

Concord Monitor
Published: 1/28/2023 11:31:58 PM
Modified: 1/31/2023 7:42:57 AM

SALEM, N.H. — As the crowd applauded former President Donald Trump, who gave the keynote speech Saturday at the annual GOP meeting in Salem, a former state party chairman was not in attendance.

Steve Duprey is among a list of prominent New Hampshire Republicans who say they choose “country over party” when it comes to supporting Trump’s quest for reelection.

The path Trump creates for the party is one of aggression and division in the country, they say. Instead, Duprey and others argue it’s time for a change.

“It’s direction of positive messaging like Ronald Reagan and Bush 41 used. It’s about having a concrete platform that’s consistent with traditional Republican principles,” the Concord real estate developer said. “It’s about speaking optimistically. Not denigrating any group, or any group of citizens. It’s honoring the rule of law.”

Concord attorney Tom Rath, a former attorney general and longtime GOP strategist, was even more blunt.

“I think we’ve got to rid ourselves with this disease and move forward and listen to what the electorate is telling us,” Rath said. “That kind of extremism and sort of almost hero worship is not conducive to having a government that produces the results that benefit the way people live.”

Trump’s visit to the state where he won the primary in 2016 underscores a party divide — between those who continue to embrace the former president and those who are interested in a new face of the party, like Gov. Chris Sununu.

Back to New Hampshire

At Trump’s first rally in New Hampshire in 2015, he stood in the gym at Manchester Community College, the day after announcing his candidacy. At the time, Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had already joined the race. Ohio Gov. John Kasich would soon follow.

Trump went on to win the New Hampshire primary, a victory that many think catapulted him to the nomination.

He continues to have a fervent base in New Hampshire, Duprey said, which is why it was not surprising that state Republicans would invite him to their annual meeting.

“He has a very loyal and dedicated group of supporters,” Duprey said.

Rath agreed: “People who have been with Donald Trump will always be with Donald Trump. I think they’re very loyal to him, and it’s an asset that few candidates have. However, it’s not enough. He cannot come in here and assume that this is a slam dunk for him.”

Official party leaders said it was welcome news when Trump confirmed he would be the keynote speaker.

“The president said he was coming to New Hampshire, and I am excited that we have such a prominent Republican coming,” said Pamela Tucker, the former vice chair of the party, ahead of Saturday’s meeting.

Trump has a strong ally in Steve Stepanek, who stepped away from his role as state party chair Saturday after four years at the helm. His next pursuit is to become more involved with Trump’s campaign, he told Reuters.

Stepanek was the co-chair of Trump’s 2016 campaign in New Hampshire.

A new direction

By 2020, however, many Republican leaders shared a different view of the president, citing years of insults and division that frayed the nation.

Rath was one of many New Hampshire Republicans who endorsed Biden in the 2020 election. The breaking point in splitting from the party was one of humanity, he said.

“I don’t think Donald Trump is a terrible president. I think he’s not a very good person. And I think for all the reasons that you might disagree with Joe Biden on policy, he’s a decent human being, and I believe he is,” he said. “He has a core honesty and decency that was far superior to Donald Trump, and that’s why I did it. I don’t regret it.”

Other state leaders like former U.S. Sen. Gordon Humphrey and former party chair Jennifer Horn also rejected Trump. Horn publicly left the Republican party and co-founded the Lincoln Project, an organization dedicated to protecting democracy.

Duprey also endorsed Biden, alongside Cindy McCain, the wife of late Sen. John McCain, who was a close friend of the Concord businessman. McCain is one of two party figures who embodies the spirit of the Republican party that Duprey stands for, he said. The other is Sununu.

Among Trump’s personal attacks, he disparaged John McCain, the former Arizona senator who was a prisoner of war while serving in the Navy during the Vietnam War.

“He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured,” Trump said in 2015. “I like people who weren’t captured.”

In his second campaign, conservative-leaning news outlets in New Hampshire publicly criticized the twice-impeached president. The Union Leader and the Bow Times, led by publisher and former Congressman Chuck Douglas, both endorsed Biden.

While Sununu has hinted at his own presidential run, he also has talked about the need for the party to part ways with Trump.

“He’s done his time. He’s done his service. We’re moving on,” he said of Trump to Dana Bash on the CNN segment “Being Chris Sununu.”

With New Hampshire priding itself as a small state where candidates can meet constituents, the same opportunities will given to any candidate entering the race, Tucker said.

“There will be others who come to New Hampshire, and we will gladly welcome them as well,” she said. “The good thing about being first in the nation is we do have a variety of thoughts, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, and we have the opportunity to help the rest of the country choose the best person for that position.”

For Rath, Duprey and many other Republicans, a change of message would be welcome.

“I think that this too shall pass, and I think it’s in the process of passing,” Rath said. “I don’t think he’s as strong here as he was. And I think if there were a general, if there were a primary, I wouldn’t automatically concede it to him anymore.”

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