Jeff Flake just became a political giant, and now he’s coming to N.H.

  • Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., walks out of the anteroom during the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, Friday, Sept. 28, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington. After a flurry of last-minute negotiations, the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced Brett Kavanaugh's nomination for the Supreme Court after agreeing to a late call from Sen. Flake for a one week investigation into sexual assault allegation against the high court nominee. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) Pablo Martinez Monsivais

  • FILE - In this Aug. 25, 2016, file photo, Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks at the Regional Judicial Opioid Initiative opening summit in Cincinnati. His office estimates the state is spending 1 billion a year to address the opioid crisis. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File) John Minchillo

For the Monitor
Published: 9/28/2018 3:23:05 PM

Sen. Jeff Flake caused political waves Friday when he helped pave the way for an FBI investigation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

Now the Arizona Republican is scheduled to ride that newfound name recognition into New Hampshire during a visit that is sparking further speculation that President Trump could very well face a primary challenge as he runs for re-election in 2020.

It will be the second visit by the outspoken critic of Trump to the state that holds the first primary in the race for the White House.

Another vocal GOP critic of the president, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, will also be paying his second visit to New Hampshire this year when he returns days after November’s midterm election.

The upcoming high-profile stops in the Granite State by Flake and Kasich are further signals that Trump may be seen as vulnerable in a Republican primary.

Kasich told the Monitor in the spring that “all my options are on the table.”

And Flake made sure to highlight that, “I have not ruled it out.”

If the president faces competition from within the GOP, New Hampshire will likely be ground zero.

“If a primary comes, a credible one, it will happen here in New Hampshire. And it will do better than people expect,” longtime Granite State-based consultant Jim Merrill said.

 “Not only does the size of the state make it easy to work in, the media market makes it easy to work in,” explained Merrill, a veteran of the 2004 President George W. Bush re-election campaign, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, and Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 White House bid.

He also pointed to New Hampshire’s open-style primary that allows independents to vote in either Republican or Democratic contests.

“The president’s had his struggle with independent voters, so a Republican candidate looking to make inroads would do well to look at New Hampshire,” Merrill said.

And then there’s history.

Both Ronald Reagan – in his 1976 challenge against President Gerald Ford – and conservative commentator Pat Buchanan – who took on President George H.W. Bush in 1992 – gave the incumbents major scares in the GOP primary in New Hampshire.

Merrill said the Granite State “has a history of underdogs going well here so the candidate that came here, that camped here, that worked the old-fashioned shoe-leather type of campaign, I think has the chance to do well. I don’t think that the president’s going to lose a presidential primary here but I do think someone could come up here and send a message, a strong message should they choose to.”

Flake speaks Monday at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics on the campus of St. Anselm College. It’s the same venue he visited in April.

“The last time Sen. Flake appeared in New Hampshire, after he spoke there was a long drawn-out standing ovation of applause from the audience,” NHIOP executive director Neil Levesque said. “I would expect that that would happen again.”

A poll by the Republican-leaning New Hampshire Journal released in August indicated that 40 percent of GOP voters in the state would welcome a primary challenge against the president, with 47 percent saying it would be a bad idea and 13 percent unsure.

But Al Baldasaro doesn’t buy those numbers. The outspoken Republican state representative from Londonderry, who was a top Granite State surrogate and adviser to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, described Flake and Kasich as “two fake Republicans. RINOs (Republicans in Name Only).”

Baldasaro said that “there’s no doubt in my mind. The silent majority are still there for Trump.”

“Look at the rallies,” Baldasaro added. “The thousands of people he’s (Trump) still drawing.”

One factor in determining whether the president faces a credible primary challenge will be November’s midterm elections, where the GOP’s hoping to hang onto its majorities in both houses of Congress.

“Certainly if we have a rough November, that’s going to give some people perhaps the idea that they want to get involved in 2020,” Merrill predicted. “The sense that if things go bad in November that Republicans are perhaps ready for a different perspective.”

Trump easily won the 2016 New Hampshire GOP primary, launching him toward the Republican presidential nomination and eventually the White House. He finished 19 percentage points ahead of Kasich, who came in second. But Trump took down a divided opposition, thanks to a large field of candidates.

Merrill predicted that it could be different the second time around.

“Instead of having 17 candidates splitting the vote, you may just have two or three. That means more attention, more ability to earn support and get your message out. So that would be significant,” he explained.

And he said that Trump now has a record as president, allowing primary voters to “consider the good and the bad and the ugly of those couple of years and people will have a record to weigh his candidacy on.”

“I do think by the virtue of it being a smaller field and there now being a record to run on or run against, a candidate could conceivably do better here than might have otherwise two years ago.”

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