N.H. Republican leaders on Trump: ‘He wasn’t my choice'

  • Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures while speaking during a rally in Terre Haute, Ind., recently. AP

Published: 5/4/2016 11:37:13 PM

Resignation. Acceptance. Anger.

Now that Donald Trump is the only Republican left in the presidential race, New Hampshire’s top GOP leaders are facing the choice of supporting the bombastic businessman or rejecting him. And they’re feeling a host of emotions.

“I have certainly had my issues with Donald Trump and still do,” said House Speaker Shawn Jasper, a Hudson Republican who had endorsed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. “Given the fact that either he or Hillary Clinton will be the next president of the United States, I will support Donald.”

Nearly all 14 Republican state senators endorsed a candidate during the presidential primary. None backed Trump.

“He was not my first choice. He wasn’t even my second or third,” said state Sen. Nancy Stiles, a Hampton Republican, who will now support the party nominee. “If elected, I think he is a bright man.”

Fergus Cullen, former state Republican Party chairman and John Kasich supporter, has a much less rosy outlook.

“I’m depressed about the prospect of the Trump nomination,” he said flatly.

Cullen’s phone line cut in and out during the interview, which he bleakly joked was “the howling wind as I stand on my roof and look 40 feet down, wondering should I jump or not.”

Trump hasn’t secured the Republican nomination yet, but he gained a clear path to victory this week after his only remaining competitors – Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich – dropped out of the presidential contest. Trump has already won a majority of the delegates needed to clinch the party’s nomination before the GOP convention in Cleveland this July.

Many top New Hampshire Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, said Wednesday they plan to support the party nominee, even if Trump wasn’t their first pick.

Others said the New York businessman doesn’t reflect their values, and they would rather abstain than cast a ballot for him or the Democrat in November.

“It’s clear that of all the great candidates that the Republican Party had available to itself this cycle – of good conservatives – that we’re not going to have a conservative run,” said Republican Rep. Bill O’Brien, a former speaker of the House. “It’s unfortunate for our party.”

O’Brien, who backed Cruz, won’t support the Democratic nominee or Trump in November.

While Trump has proven a divisive figure during the Republican nominating contest – ridiculing his rivals’ eating habits and calling some liars – both he and his supporters pledge to unite the GOP.

“I already see it happening,” said Rep. Al Baldasaro, a Londonderry Republican and Trump backer. “If they don’t get behind him, they will get Hillary. It’s their pick, their choice.”

But Trump has his work cut out for him developing party unity.

“I am hopeful that he can,” Jasper said. “He has a lot of work to do. He has an awful lot of work to do.”

New Hampshire helped legitimize Trump’s candidacy by giving him his first win in a presidential nominating contest. Trump drew more than 35 percent of votes cast in the first-in-the-nation Republican primary, trouncing other GOP candidates by double-digit margins.

Still, Trump never received much support from Republican party leaders in New Hampshire. State Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Horn has been critical of Trump’s campaign, calling it “shallow” and dependent on “bombast and divisive rhetoric” in a November interview with the Boston Globe.

“Trump wasn’t everybody’s first choice, but the voters have spoken,” said Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican. “I am looking forward to supporting the nominee, and I think he will be the nominee. It doesn’t mean I agree with him on everything.”

“I’m excited,” said Sen. John Reagan, a Deerfield Republican. “He wasn’t my choice, but he’s capable of managing.”

Others declined to comment. Republican Rep. Neal Kurk of Weare walked out of the State House pressroom when asked if he is excited about the Trump candidacy.

Some fear that Trump’s name at the top of the Republican ticket will have far-reaching consequences in November, by hurting the party’s candidates for Congress, governor and the state Legislature.

“The conservative agenda is going to get drilled,” Cullen said. “We shouldn’t have to learn this lesson through defeat, but sometimes that’s what it takes.”

Democrats are already making efforts to tie Trump to Ayotte, who faces a competitive re-election challenge this year from Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan.

Hassan on Wednesday called Trump a “dangerous nominee for the Republican Party.”

“His positions, his demeanor, his lack of respect for his fellow citizens and many of the inflammatory comments he has made would be very damaging to the presidency of the United States and to our country,” she told reporters. “I am appalled that Sen. Ayotte is supporting him and I think she absolutely will need to be held accountable for Donald Trump’s statements and positions.”

Ayotte didn’t endorse any candidate during the primary contest, but has long said that she will support the eventual Republican nominee. In a statement released Wednesday, Ayotte’s campaign spokeswoman echoed that sentiment, but didn’t mention Trump by name.

“As she’s said from the beginning, Kelly plans to support the nominee,” said spokeswoman Liz Johnson.

Others disagree that Trump would threaten the state’s other candidates.

“The demise of the Republicans because of Trump is a little overrated,” said lawyer and veteran GOP strategist Tom Rath, a Kasich supporter. “I don’t think you’re going to replace someone like Kelly Ayotte on the basis that Donald Trump is on the top of ticket.”

While Trump’s nomination will likely prompt some soul-searching among Republican party leaders at the national and local level, Rath said he thinks the voters have spoken.

Trump has won 26 of the 38 Republican presidential nominating contests.

“Donald is the nominee because he is an outsider,” said Republican state Sen. Kevin Avard, who first supported Rand Paul before backing Cruz. He will now support Trump as the party’s nominee. “The country said they want an outsider, so we have to listen to the people.”

First dismissed as a sideshow act by many political pundits and veteran politicians, Trump’s brash style and messages about closing borders and re-energizing the economy resonated with voters in New Hampshire and across the country.

Trump disregarded the traditional New Hampshire primary tactics of small-scale retail stops, town halls and hand shaking for large campaign rallies that drew hundreds of supporters and protesters.

Trump continued to stir controversy during his campaign, with his characterizations of Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and calls for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

Rath said he never saw Trump’s rise coming. And though some Democrats are celebrating Trump’s win as a sure demise of the Republican Party, Rath says not so fast.

“I know some of my Democratic friends are high-fiving each other today, and my advice for them is be careful,” he said. “Every now and then, you find someone who transcends the rules and breaks the rules, and he is it.”

(Jeremy Blackman contributed to this report.)

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