Would N.H. Republicans welcome a primary challenge to Trump?

  • Republican Gov. John Kasich, a former 2016 presidential candidate, scratches his head during a visit to New England College in Henniker, on Tuesday, April 3, 2018. AP file

  • Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., speaks at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Goffstown on March 16, 2018. AP file

  • Republican Gov. John Kasich, a 2016 presidential candidate, gestures during a visit to New England College in Henniker on Tuesday, April 3, 2018. AP

For the Monitor
Sunday, April 08, 2018

Having two high-profile Republicans visit the first-in-the-nation primary state weeks apart sounds a lot like presidential candidates, even if neither one has announced a formal run against Donald Trump.

Still, after recent New Hampshire stops from Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake – both vocal critics of Trump – the question remains whether members of the party would welcome them as alternatives to a controversial president or tar them as disloyal to the GOP.

Kasich maintains that “all my options are on the table” regarding a possible 2020 White House run.

Flake said, “I have not ruled it out.”

And when it comes to the party’s potential reception of Trump challengers, Republican figures in New Hampshire were equally noncommittal.

“Every incumbent Republican president has had a primary challenge when running for re-election. Some are very serious,” said Steve Duprey, veteran Republican National Committee member from New Hampshire.

He pointed to Ronald Reagan’s challenge against President Gerald Ford in 1976 and conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, who gave sitting President George H.W. Bush a major scare in the 1992 Republican primary in New Hampshire.

“Others are not serious,” said Duprey, a former longtime state party chairman who was a top adviser to Arizona Sen. John McCain’s 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns.

Veteran GOP consultant Tom Rath, a former state attorney general who backed and advised Kasich in 2016, said every incumbent needs to watch his back.

“History teaches us that no incumbent president should ever feel comfortable with their standing in the New Hampshire primary and you should never assume anything,” Rath said. “Pat Buchanan nearly ambushed President George H.W. Bush here.”

Kasich’s jam-packed day in New Hampshire last week included meeting with Granite State advisers and supporters from his 2016 presidential campaign, a string of media interviews, and a speech along with a question-and-answer session at New England College, as part of the Henniker school’s President’s Speaker Series.

Once a long shot for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, Kasich concentrated his efforts on New Hampshire, coming in second to Donald Trump in the Granite State’s high-profile primary and keeping his campaign alive deep into the primary calendar. And unlike Trump’s other rivals for the nomination, Kasich never endorsed Trump for president and has remained a critic since Trump has been in the Oval Office.

The term-limited Ohio governor acknowledged that his visit to the first-in-the-nation presidential primary state would spark more speculation that he’s considering a primary challenge against Trump.

“It’s great to come back because it gets everybody atwitter, literally,” he said in an interview with the Monitor and WKXL radio in Concord.

But on plans for 2020 run, Kasich said, “I honestly don’t know what I’m doing.”

Flake – the Arizona Republican who’s retiring from the Senate at the end of the year rather than run for what would have been a challenging re-election in 2018 – spoke two weeks earlier at Politics and Eggs at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, a must-stop for White House hopefuls.

“It has not been in my plans to run for president, but I have not ruled it out,” he said.

Public opinion surveys suggest there may be a growing appetite among Granite State voters for a primary challenge. Sixty percent of likely 2020 Republican primary voters said they plan to vote for Trump, according to University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll conducted earlier this year. But some 40 percent indicated they would support someone else or weren’t sure.

And nearly a quarter of Granite State Republicans who were questioned in a recent Saint Anselm College Survey Center poll said they had an unfavorable view of Trump, and 1 in 5 believed the country is on the wrong track.

An American Research Group survey released this past week suggested Trump leading Kasich 48 percent to 42 percent among likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire in a hypothetical 2020 matchup, with Trump topping Flake 49 percent to 43 percent.

“What the Kasich visit showed was that Kasich has a group of people who like him and would encourage him” Rath said. “But whether it goes beyond that group at this point, it’s too hard to tell.”

David Carney, a New Hampshire-based GOP consultant and veteran of numerous presidential campaigns, said he didn’t think there was much of an appetite right now among Granite State Republicans for the president to face a primary challenge.

He explained that most of the activists in the state right now are focused on getting GOP Gov. Chris Sununu re-elected this year, and on the other 2018 contests.

“I don’t think people are spoiling for a fight right now,” he added.

But Carney pointed to the state’s first-in-the-nation primary status and its open-style primary that allows independents to vote in either Republican or Democratic contests.

“Clearly, if you’re going to challenge Trump, New Hampshire’s the state to do it,” Carney said. “But it’s way too early.”

And he argued that potential primary challengers haven’t yet found a doctrine that appeals to fellow Republicans.

“They’re fumbling around for a message. They don’t really have a coherent message,” Carney said. “There’s nothing John Kasich said at Henniker that would be a framework for a compelling argument to replace Trump.”

Duprey, who as a national party member must stay neutral, emphasized the difficulty of launching a successful primary challenge against a sitting president, which has not happened in modern times.

“To mount an effective campaign would take substantial resources and a plausible case on how you would win,” he said. “At this juncture those are daunting hurdles.”

Duprey, Carney and Rath all agreed that November’s midterm elections – where the Republicans are trying to hold onto their legislative majorities both in Washington, D.C., and in Concord – would be telling.

“The better time to make this assessment is after the midterm elections. If the midterm elections are disastrous, I think it makes more people consider running. If they are with the realm of expectations, I think it makes it very less likely that anyone would mount a challenge,” Duprey predicted.

Rath said the midterms could “change the calculation a lot.”

“Any real discussion has to hold off until then,” he said.

And Carney offered that any primary challenge against the president won’t come until after the November elections when “we’ll see what the carnage is across the country.”

“If President Trump’s leadership has led to a devastating midterm election, I think you’ll see more people seriously testing the waters, coming to help their ‘good friends’ in New Hampshire,” Carney said.