On the Trail: 2020 race heating up, but are some contenders missing the boat?

  • Democratic presidential candidate John Delaney's New Hampshire campaign literature. Courtesy—

  • Democratic presidential candidate John Delaney's New Hampshire campaign literature. Courtesy—

For the Monitor
Published: 12/20/2018 3:09:39 PM

Rep. John Delaney was the first Democrat to declare his candidacy for president – announcing his campaign in July of last year – just six months into Donald Trump’s presidency.

Now, the outgoing three-term congressman from Maryland is the first of any of the declared or potential 2020 contenders to go up in the Granite State with direct mail.

His campaign sent out Christmas cards and mailers to approximately 90,000 Democratic and politically independent households in New Hampshire in recent days. The mailers were headlined “Want to topple Trump? Take John Delaney seriously.”

In an interview with the Monitor in September, the long shot for the White House vowed he’d “run a major campaign here in New Hampshire.”

Delaney has made more than a dozen trips to the state the past year and a half, and he’ll return Jan. 18. His campaign will have three staffers on the ground in the first-in-the-nation primary state by the start of the New Year.

While Delaney’s been working overtime, have other potential Democratic presidential contenders missed their chance to get their names out there in New Hampshire before the bigger candidates start dropping into the state early next year?

“I’m surprised that we have not seen more of the candidates who are certainly accomplished and capable but may not be as well-known as the Bidens and the Warrens and the Sanders,” noted Terry Shumaker, a Manchester-based attorney and Democratic activist who’s been a close friend and adviser to former president Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton for decades.

Only four likely White House hopefuls have visited the state in the crucial post-midterm election and pre-holiday period.

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey keynoted a state Democratic Party 2018 election victory celebration and headlined three jam-packed house parties during a two-day swing that appeared to be tune-up for things to come.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii attracted an overflow crowd at a meet-and-greet with activists at the Rockingham County Democrats headquarters during a busy layover in the state.

Congressman Eric Swalwell of California held multiple meetings with lawmakers and activists and made the rounds at the New Hampshire Young Democrats’ holiday party during his 24-hour trip.

And declared presidential candidate and New York-based entrepreneur Andrew Yang also visited the Granite State.

Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon hasn’t been here in recent weeks. But he did quietly make plenty of friends among the activist class during five trips this year to New Hampshire.

And former San Antonio, Texas, Mayor Julian Castro, who later served as Housing and Urban Development secretary under former president Barack Obama, laid the groundwork during three swings through the Granite State this year. Last week, he announced the formation of a presidential exploratory committee.

Shumaker, who remains neutral in these early stages of the 2020 Democratic primary battle, emphasized that “some candidates took advantage of the fall opportunity here, but quite a few really didn’t.”

Sununu speaks about NHGOP’s primary neutrality

Gov. Chris Sununu predicts that a potential move by some of President Donald Trump’s top supporters in the Granite State to drop the state Republican Party’s decades-old neutrality clause in order to back the president in the 2020 primary will fail.

“I’m very, very confident that initiative will be withdrawn or defeated,” New Hampshire’s Republican governor told the Monitor on Thursday.

But one of the ringleaders of the push, state Rep. Fred Doucette of Salem – who served as a state co-chairman of the 2016 Trump campaign – told the Monitor “we are leaning towards doing this.”

Doucette is leading the charge along with Windham Selectman Bruce Breton, who was an early supporter of Trump’s successful 2016 campaign for president. They may introduce an amendment to alter the New Hampshire GOP’s by-laws that keep the state party neutral in primaries, including the state’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary, in order to allow the state party to support the president’s 2020 re-election campaign.

They argue that Trump’s “the sitting president and the head of our party, and we should be endorsing and supporting him with everything we have in New Hampshire.”

But opponents of the move said that the dropping of the neutrality clause would threaten the state’s cherished century-long tradition of holding the first primary in the race for the White House.

Sununu, who is close to the White House, praised the Trump supporters, saying “they do great stuff. They are friends. But on this issue, this is very wrong in terms of where it could take not just the Republican Party but the state as a whole.”

Sununu said conducting unbiased elections is fundamental in the Granite State.

“Maintaining neutrality in our party primaries, whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, is one of the advantages that New Hampshire has over many other states and it allows us to ensure that anybody can come in and run for office at any time,” Sununu said. “It’s not about money. It’s not about incumbency.”

Doucette, as a state party committee member, has until Jan. 4 to introduce a by-law submission.

The amendment would then likely face a vote by the state committee membership (about 475 members) when they gather Jan. 26 at the annual New Hampshire Republican State Committee meeting. A two-thirds majority of those attending the meeting is needed to pass an amendment altering the party’s by-laws.

Doucette acknowledges that the amendment faces tough odds, but added that “we have a lot of people who support this kind of change.”

Sununu not taking sides in race for NHGOP chair

Sununu told the Monitor that “right now” he’s staying neutral in the upcoming election for chair of the New Hampshire Republican State Committee.

Two years ago – weeks after winning the governorship – Sununu endorsed former state Sen. Jeanie Forrester as state party chairwoman. In late June of this year, Forrester abruptly resigned, with the party badly trailing the Democrats in fundraising and coming off a slew of special legislative election defeats.

Vice chairman Wayne MacDonald took over as interim chairman, but is not running for a full two-year term steering the state party.

Right now, the leading contender for the job is Steve Stepanek, a businessman from Amherst who served five terms as a state representative and who was co-chairman of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign in New Hampshire.

Keith Hanson of Grantham, a conservative talk radio and local TV host, is also running for the position.

While the post will be voted on by the Republican State Committee at its annual meeting Jan. 26, Sununu – as the de-facto head of the party – will have great influence on choosing the next chair.

“There’s still a few folks who are coming in and talking to me about potentially running for chair or vice-chair,” Sununu said. “So we’re kind of weighing our options. Steve has done some great work for the party. He’s got great leadership skills, but if other folks want to step up and step forward, then by all means, there’s a discussion to be had.”

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