HUDSON, N.H. (AP) — They acknowledge Donald Trump’s dominance, but weary Republicans across New Hampshire — even inside the governor’s office — are fighting to stop the former president from winning the first-in-the-nation primary.
For now, however, they’re relying on little more than hope and prayers.
Look no further than Mike Pence, Trump’s former vice president, who repeatedly appealed to voters’ faith this week as he tried to resurrect his anemic presidential campaign while courting a few dozen voters in a former state lawmaker’s backyard.
“I truly do believe that different times call for different leadership,” Pence told his modest crowd. “I know you all are going to do your job, because I have faith. I have faith in the American people.”
More than a dozen high-profile Republicans are looking to New Hampshire, the state long known for shining on political underdogs, to help stop Trump’s march toward a third consecutive Republican presidential nomination. But so far, none has cracked the veneer of inevitability that has followed Trump through the early states on the presidential primary calendar despite — or perhaps because of — his mounting legal challenges.
A significant portion of the Republican electorate remains open to a new presidential nominee with less baggage than Trump. But months after many of them entered the race, there is little sign that the former president’s rivals are breaking through.
The strongest Trump alternative on paper, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, has already begun to lay off staff amid unexpected financial challenges and stagnant poll numbers. Others have failed to break out of the single digits in early polls. And as Trump braces for the possibility of a third criminal indictment, his hold on the party appears to be stronger than ever.
Pence, perhaps more than anyone, has been dragged down by the powerful undertow of Trumpism that has reshaped the political landscape for much of the last decade.
Pence barely registered in a new poll released this week by the University of New Hampshire. And he admitted this week that he does not yet have enough donors to qualify for the opening presidential debate next month, an extraordinary position for a former vice president to find himself in. During multiple stops in New Hampshire this week, he appealed to voters to donate even $1 to boost his numbers.
“Obviously, he wishes he was doing better,” said New Hampshire Republican Gov. Chris Sununu. “You’re not going to find a better character and a better person than someone like Mike Pence. He’s just such a great guy. But his message, for whatever reason, isn’t quite resonating with folks.”
Pence has managed to draw the wrath of Trump loyalists and critics alike.
Among those who dislike Trump, Pence is viewed as a Trump acolyte who enabled his bad behavior for four years. And those who love Trump blame Pence for not blocking the certification of Joe Biden’s presidential victory on Jan. 6, 2021 — a power that the former vice president did not have.
Trump loyalists infamously chanted, “Hang Mike Pence” while storming the U.S. Capitol and his political standing within the Republican Party has never recovered.
“I think Mike Pence is genuinely destroyed,” said former New Hampshire GOP chair Jennifer Horn. “He cannot win. There’s no circumstance and no race that Mike Pence will ever win. It’s sad.”
New Hampshire, a state that has traditionally shied away from the type religious conservatism Pence espouses, would be an unlikely staging ground for a comeback for the evangelical Christian who launched his 2024 campaign in Iowa. Still, politicians of all stripes have managed to break through over the years in a state that has often rewarded those willing to invest time and attention.
Still, the road to relevance for anyone not named Trump in 2024 will be steep.
Pence is essentially trying to reinvent himself as he reintroduces himself to New Hampshire voters. He and his staff have embraced a new mantra: “He is well-known but not known well.”
At his first New Hampshire stop this week, Pence largely avoided talking about his years as vice president and did not utter Trump’s name. He introduced himself this way: “I’m Mike Pence. I’m from Indiana. And I’m running for president.”
Pence’s message on the stump is a throwback of sorts to the GOP’s conservative platform before Trump’s big-government populism took over.
He called for a muscular foreign policy, a recommitment to social conservative values and a sharp reduction in federal spending. He did not mention his support for a federal abortion ban. Breaking from Trump, he also endorsed changes to Social Security for people under 40 to ensure the government-backed safety net program is financially stable.
He spoke with authority, but Pence’s political challenges loomed over his New Hampshire tour.
The host of Wednesday’s event, former state Senate majority leader Bob Clegg, encouraged every attendee to donate $1 to the Pence campaign to ensure he reaches the 40,000 individual donor threshold set by the Republican National Committee to qualify.
“They can give more,” Pence quipped with a smile. He later added, “We’re working around the clock to make sure we get enough donors to be up on that debate stage.”
Despite some chuckles, Pence’s allies privately acknowledge that failing to qualify for the first GOP debate would be a political death sentence.
Pence’s national chairman, veteran Republican strategist Chip Saltsman, would say only, “We’re getting there” when asked how close the campaign was to the donor threshold.
Saltsman dismissed Pence’s struggles as a byproduct of the crowded field, which includes wealthy candidates like North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who offered donors gift cards, and others like DeSantis, whose allied super PAC raised more than $100 million.
“It’s a lot of ebb and flow,” Saltsman said. “And one thing I know for a fact is I haven’t seen a frontrunner in the summer make it to the Iowa caucus or the New Hampshire primary in the winter yet.”
Sununu, the New Hampshire governor, is also betting on the weight of history to help stop Trump. He noted that primary voters typically wait until a few weeks before the primary to finalize their decision.
New Hampshire’s primary is still six months away.
In an interview, Sununu warned that Trump has no chance of winning the general election and would drag down the rest of the party with him if he’s on the November ballot.
“I’m hoping that most people come to their senses,” Sununu said. “There’s still plenty of time for this roller coaster ride to play out.”
Meanwhile, Pence is seeking the assistance of a higher power.
“This is a nation of faith,” he told the modest collection of primary voters gathered in Clegg’s backyard. “If we will steer our party to a future built on those time-honored conservative principles that have carried our party to victory and to success for the American people over the last 50 years, and if we renew our faith in Him who has guided this great nation since they first set foot on Plymouth Rock — not too far from here — I truly do believe the best days for the greatest nation on earth are yet to come.”