In a presidential election year, the top of the ticket almost inevitably affects outcomes down ballot. And this year, President Trump hopes to maximize his influence. In New Hampshire, that effort is clear in the September Republican primaries, where he’s endorsed local candidates for Congress and U.S. Senate.
NHPR’s Josh Rogers reports on the upshot of Trump’s decision, and the possible divide it’s sowing in the New Hampshire GOP.
When the president held a tele-town hall last week with supporters from New Hampshire and Maine, it didn’t take him long to mention his preferred slate of candidates. Trump started with Gov. Chris Sununu. No surprise there: Backing a popular incumbent is typical for a president up for reelection. But endorsing non-incumbent candidates in contested primaries isn’t. And that’s what Trump’s doing.
“Senate candidate Corky Messner, who I just hear nothing but good about," Trump told supporters on that call. "He’s got my total endorsement and we are with him 100 percent."
Messner is 63. He founded a national law firm based in Denver but now lives in Wolfeboro. The president then name-checked the second New Hampshire Republican primary candidate he's endorsed:
"Matt Mowers, a candidate for the congressional district. He is just going to do a great job. I’m hearing you are going to win Matt. You better win.”
Mowers, whose name Trump mispronounced in that call, is a 31-year-old consultant who grew up in New Jersey, now lives in Bedford, and first worked in New Hampshire politics in 2013. For any GOP candidate anywhere, a Trump endorsement is big. Over the past two years, Trump-backed candidates have gone 29-4 in primaries across the country.
Messner faces Don Bolduc, a retired Army brigadier general. Mowers faces Matt Mayberry, a former state GOP vice chairman. Republican voters will decide those races next month.
But listen to the two Trump-backed candidates on the campaign trail, and you hear candidates ever-focused on grafting their candidacies to Trump's.
“A lot of people are really excited to support the president again, and that in fact he’s picked up a lot of new supporters in the past four year, because they’ve really seen the stakes, and they don’t want to see rioters being supported by elected officials as well as candidates down ticket," Mowers said at a recent 'Women for Trump' event in Concord.
Like Mowers, Messner also tends to lead with Trump as a campaign opener – as in this Facebook chat hosted by 'College Students For Trump':
"President Trump will rebuild this economy, and I will help him rebuild it as the next U.S. senator from New Hampshire, and what president Trump does is get government out of the way."
While’s Trump aim may be to unite core GOP voters here behind the candidates he expects to win, there are indicators it may be causing a rupture.
'People seem to be dividing themselves into camps," said Phyllis Woods, who chairs the Strafford County Republican Committee. "Are they the Bolduc/Mayberry camp or the Mowers/Messner camp?"
Woods ' post requires neutrality in primaries. But she said Trump’s decision to pick sides is his to make and, any hard feelings aside, it should boost local Republicans overall.
'We certainly don’t want to tell the President or the Trump Victory PAC that they cannot endorse," Woods said. "We are really concerned about the top of the ticket, and they are really concerned about the top of the ticket, so we have that in common.'
But differences remain. And Trump’s endorsement of Messner and Mowers throws one, in particular, into stark relief. That's the fact that Trump’s candidates of choice have thin ties to New Hampshire compared to the candidates he’s spurned. Mayberry has lived in the state for decades and long been active in state and local GOP politics. Bolduc, meanwhile, comes from a family with New Hampshire roots that reach back to the colonial era.
Those facts have become a bit of a rallying cry for backers of Bolduc and Mayberry, including Tuftonboro GOP activist Beverly Bruce, who hosted a party for the candidates last week. Bruce told the crowd she adores Trump, but rejects his decision to meddle in a contested primary, especially on behalf of candidates she considers carpetbaggers.
“We do not want someone from outside our state, and from Washington, DC, to tell us who to vote for," she said.
When Mayberry took the mic at the event, he told the crowd he was supporting Trump when Mowers was working on the presidential campaign of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. He argued that Mowers’ candidacy would inevitably fall short, as have the campaigns of other candidates who moved to New Hampshire to run for office.
"It didn't work for Scott Brown; it didn’t work for Maura Sullivan; it’s not going to work for Matt Mowers," Mayberry said. "He will lose the general election."
Bolduc, meanwhile, didn’t acknowledge his primary opponent, or mention Trump by name. But still got his point across.
“The establishment calls me the 'other' Republican candidate," he said. "I don’t even have a name in their eyes. And you don’t think that makes me upset? Everybody in here should be upset right now, because no one tells Granite Staters what to do.”
It serves Bolduc to believe that. But he may be right. The RNC held a pro-police police rally last week in Manchester. It drew dozens of Trump loyalists, the kind of people most likely to act on the president’s political recommendations. But no one I talked to said Trump’s advice would necessarily drive their primary votes.
Sean Shisko, who lives in Manchester, said he supports the president, but that doesn’t mean Trump’s wish is his command.
“My mother is around here somewhere," Shisko said. "I don’t do what she tells me. So I’m certainly not going to do what some person I’ve never met, or ever probably will meet in my life, will ever get me to do, regardless of whether I agree with him or not.”
Which will put the chase in the primary: both for the candidates Trump has endorsed, and for the ones he hasn’t.