Former President Donald Trump has hired outgoing New Hampshire GOP Chair Stephen Stepanek to help oversee his organisation in the nation’s first primary state, as he responds to criticism that his campaign is moving slowly.
Stepanek, a state co-chair for Trump’s 2016 campaign who went on to lead the state GOP for two terms, will serve as a senior adviser focused on New Hampshire, according to AWN. Trump made the announcement during his keynote address at the party’s annual meeting on Saturday, where members also chose Stepanek’s replacement.
“If he wasn’t coming with us, I might just have to forget about New Hampshire and just chalk it down as a loss. But I don’t think we can lose with Steve,” Trump remarked, hinting that he’d return for a “huge” rally at some time.
Stepanek’s selection suggests a possible return to the origins of Trump’s 2016 campaign in the state that gave him his first primary victory that year. In that general election, Trump lost New Hampshire by a fraction of a point. Four years later, he lost the state terribly, losing by 7 points to President Joe Biden.
“This is significant. “He was just the leader of our entire state party,” Karoline Leavitt, a former Trump assistant who ran unsuccessfully for Congress here last year, said of Stepanek in an interview. “I believe that sends a strong message to the rest of the Republican field that New Hampshire is Trump’s domain.”
However, Stepanek’s engagement irritates some Republican activists. After a disastrous election in which the GOP’s slate of hard-right, pro-Trump congressional candidates was thrashed and the party lost seats in the state Legislature, state committee members were demanding for a change in party leadership. Before deciding not to run for a third term, Stepanek was expected to face a rival for party chair. Chris Ager, who defeated one of Trump’s 2020 state co-chairs, Lou Gargiulo, for the position, currently holds it.
And it will do little to assuage some of Trump’s erstwhile pals in the state’s concerns about the seriousness of his operation as he launches his third presidential candidature.
Associates from Trump’s previous campaigns have expressed dissatisfaction with the weak — or nonexistent — contact since his November debut. At least one major ally was unaware of the former president’s visit to the state this weekend, his first since 2020.
While Trump hats adorned the high school auditorium where party faithful gathered to hear him Saturday, numerous longtime allies and supporters say they’re waiting to see how the Republican primary unfolds before recommitting.
Interviews with 20 former Trump aides and friends, senior presidential campaign operatives, and current and former party officials revealed a strong interest in Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis among Republican operatives and activists.
And, despite not visiting the state in recent months, a University of New Hampshire poll released this week found the Florida governor with a 12-point advantage over Trump among probable New Hampshire GOP primary voters. Younger operatives, in particular, expressed a desire to be snatched up by DeSantis, whom they saw as the next big thing.
“President Trump begins the [New Hampshire] primary season as a frontrunner, but his standing isn’t what it once was,” said Jim Merrill, a longtime New Hampshire consultant. “Voters and operatives alike are interested in researching the potential field.”
That new reality was on plain show at Saturday’s party meeting, where participants arriving to hear Trump speak were greeted with a cardboard cutout of DeSantis. Outgoing Vice Chair Pamela Tucker was signing up volunteers for Ron to the Rescue, a pro-DeSantis super PAC founded after the midterms to support the governor if he runs for president. It was one of two draft-DeSantis organisations at the rally.
“I met so many individuals through the Trump organisation while we were developing it, and they were all like, ‘Yeah, we need Ron DeSantis to win,'” Tucker said in an interview.
Other potential candidates are also attracting attention — and have spent years undermining Trump’s advantages in New Hampshire. Former Vice President Mike Pence, former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have all made multiple visits to the state in the last two years. Former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has also travelled north to “Politics & Eggs” at Saint Anselm, a mandatory stop for would-be presidential candidates. Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) has hosted a number of party fundraisers in the past.
Chris Sununu, the state’s popular four-term governor, is a wildcard. Sununu hasn’t ruled out a presidential candidature and has been acting as though he’s preparing to run, though several veteran operators in the state doubt he’ll run after rejecting to run for Senate last year.
Michael Biundo, a longtime New Hampshire Republican strategist who worked as a national adviser on Trump’s 2016 campaign, said bringing on Stepanek was a “wise” move by the Trump team to try to allay worries about his lack of presence in the state and quell speculation about prospective opponents.
However, according to Biundo, “they will need to do a lot more to change the reality on the ground.”
The talks with Republicans show Trump’s significant challenges in New Hampshire. Despite his credentials as a former president and de facto GOP leader, nothing will be provided to him.
Some Republicans interpret Trump’s early trip as an indication that the former president anticipates a crowded primary and is eager to contest. They also point out that it is still early in the campaign and that Trump has time to build a full team and prepare his campaign, especially with other competitors taking their time.
Trump emphasised this point frequently as he talked to 400 GOP activists on Saturday, a far cry from the arena-sized throngs he commanded in the run-up to the 2020 election.
“I’ve got two years,” Trump declared to applause. “I’m angrier and more committed than I’ve ever been.”
Republicans have been waiting for Trump to emerge from Mar-a-Lago, where he has kept an unusually low profile since his declaration last fall.
Some Republicans who worked on his prior campaigns were concerned about his lack of infrastructure development in New Hampshire. His travel to New Hampshire wasn’t added to his calendar until Monday, nearly two weeks after aides disclosed plans for a South Carolina event.
According to Fred Doucette, a former Trump campaign co-chair in the state who has not yet committed to running in 2024, Trump “re-energized and re-engaged some of the people in New Hampshire” on Saturday, calling it a “positive start.”
In an interview, Joshua Whitehouse, who worked as Trump’s New Hampshire coalitions director in 2016 and later in his administration, said the former president’s “grassroots are still there,” but the “primary deficit is staffing and infrastructure.”
“Once he gets those ducks in a row, he’ll be fine,” Whitehouse said.