Turmoil in New Hampshire
DURHAM, N. H. -Just the other day this urgent message went out to Trump activists, organizers and supporters in New Hampshire:
All indicators show that New Hampshire is absolutely critical to Mr. Trump winning the White House. Without the Granite State's 4 electoral votes, things don't look good.
Then the statewide organization for Donald Trump's presidential campaign listed 51 "meet-ups," mostly at Dunkin' Donuts outlets, small cafes and private homes, to mobilize efforts to draw this state into the Trump column next month. Monday night the campaign held 15 debate-watch parties across the state, including one at Libby's Bar and Grill, which bills itself as a "chill hangout" on Main Street here in Durham, home of the University of New Hampshire. Who says the Trump campaign doesn't have a ground operation?
And yet the Trump effort here, like its efforts elsewhere, is being conducted amid a Republican Party in turmoil.
The result is a campaign year that defies the definition that Robert Frost -- who, as perhaps New Hampshire's signature citizen, studied in Hanover, raised chickens in Derry, taught in Plymouth and celebrated birch "trunks arching in the woods" close by his Franconia farm -- applied to poetry: a work that "begins in delight and ends in wisdom."
But the turmoil here, in a state Republicans carried in every election between 1948 and 1988, with the exception of the Lyndon Johnson landslide, is especially critical. New Hampshire is one of a handful of battleground states where Trump, Hillary Clinton and Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, all of whom visited here last week, are battling in an increasingly close contest.
All of that turmoil, moreover, is being conducted in an environment where the state's Republicans, who occupied the governor's chair for all but 15 of the 138 years between from 1859 to 1997, are fighting
to retain a critical Senate seat and to regain a governor's office that once seemed almost to be their birthright.
The result is a very awkward moment for New Hampshire Republicans. The two leading statewide Republican candidates -- Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who is seeking a second term, and gubernatorial candidate Chris Sununu, the son of a former governor, the brother of a former senator and a member of the state's Executive Council -- represent a return to a Granite State Republicanism personified by former Sens. Judd Gregg and the late Warren B. Rudman: ideological, to be sure, but not doctrinaire.
Trump won the vital primary here in February by a decisive margin but now lags in the polls. Clinton and her husband have won two New Hampshire primaries (but not this year's), with Bill Clinton breaking the GOP's traditional hold on the state in general elections by winning it both times he ran. Barack Obama also won the state in both of his general-election campaigns, but had third-party candidate Ralph Nader not run in 2000, Vice President Al Gore would have taken the state and the election -- and the Florida recount spectacle would have been avoided.
The Trump candidacy has warped the calculus of New Hampshire politics this fall.
Ayotte, who has made a solid reputation on Capitol Hill for her work on national security, is facing a strong challenge from the Democratic governor, Maggie Hassan. Ayotte and Trump are not soul-siblings; in a summertime Washington Post interview, the real-estate-and-casino tycoon singled her out, saying, "We don't need weak people. We have enough of them. We need fighters in this country. But Kelly Ayotte has given me zero support, and I'm doing great in New Hampshire."
Since then, in a contorted political move that might win her advantage in a game of Twister but has only confused things here, the senator said she will vote for Trump but that she has not endorsed him.
The state's lone Republican House member, Rep. Frank Guinta, is fully behind Trump and, despite federal charges he accepted illegal contributions -- and a New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper editorial describing him as a "damned liar" -- Guinta prevailed in last month's primary, largely on the strength of Trump sup- porters.
Party insiders say Ayotte's support in the state exceeds that of Trump and likely will stay that way; she provides a safe harbor for Republicans who want to show their party loyalty by voting for her even as they vote for Clinton, the Libertarians' Johnson or no one at all for president.
"The idea of voting against her because of the Trump factor doesn't hold," said former state attorney general Thomas D. Rath. "People here realize they can split their vote."
Ayotte and her rival are playing a game of political guilt-by-association. Hassan has tried to tie Ayotte to Trump. Ayotte has returned the volley by questioning why the governor continues to support a presidential nominee who was soundly defeated by Sen. Bernie Sanders of neighboring Vermont in the state's primary. Meanwhile, the Union Leader, the statewide newspaper and a generations-long sentinel of Granite State conservatism, has endorsed Johnson, the former GOP governor of New Mexico.
"Now I can sleep at night," Joseph W. McQuaid, publisher of the newspaper, said in an interview.
Last winter, McQuaid wrote that Trump's campaign was "an insult to the intelligence of Republican voters." The other day he said he didn't know whom his endorsement helps. "Those two," he said, "are the worst candidates the parties have put up in a long time."
Hardly anyone, here or elsewhere, contests that, with the Trump factor a subtheme in Republicans' races elsewhere this fall.
In another vital swing state, Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania cited Trump's "vulgarity, particularly toward women" and his "lack of appreciation for constitutional limits on executive powers" as reasons he is keeping his distance from his party's nominee. Former GOP Gov. Tom Ridge, the first secretary of homeland security, has said he wouldn't vote for either Trump or Clinton.
The onetime New Hampshire poet laureate Donald Hall once wrote that "Convention speaks merely of four seasons; here we number at least a thousand." The political season this time around has been dispiriting. No poetry in the politics here this year.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshrib[email protected], 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.