They acknowledge Donald Trump’s dominance, but fed-up Republicans across New Hampshire — even inside the governor’s office — are fighting to stop the former president from winning the nation’s first primary.
For now, however, they are relying on no more than hope and prayers.
Look no further than Mike Pence, Trump’s former vice president, who appealed repeatedly to the faith of voters this week as he tried to resurrect his anemic presidential campaign as he courted a few dozen voters in the former state attorney general’s backyard.
“I truly believe that different times require different leadership,” Pence told his modest crowd. “I know you will all do your work, 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 a light on political teams, to help stop Trump’s march toward a third consecutive Republican presidential nomination. But so far, none have followed the inevitable veneer that has followed Trump through the primary states on the presidential primary calendar despite — or perhaps because of — his mounting legal challenges.
A significant portion of the Republican electorate is still 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.
Trump’s strongest alternative on paper, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, has already begun to dismiss the staff amid unexpected financial challenges and stagnant poll numbers. Others failed to break out of the single numbers in the early polls. As Trump approaches the possibility of a third criminal indictment, his hold on the party appears to be stronger than ever.
Pennies, perhaps more than anyone, have been dragged down by the powerful embrace of Trumpism that has reshaped the political landscape for much of the past decade.
Pennies barely registered in a new poll released by the University of New Hampshire this week. And he admitted this week that he still doesn’t have enough donors to qualify for next month’s open presidential debate, an extraordinary position that a former vice president could enter. During multiple stops in New Hampshire this week, he appealed to voters to donate even $1 to increase his numbers.
“Of course, he wishes he was doing better,” said Republican New Hampshire 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, is not resonating with people.”
Pence managed to draw the ire of both loyalists and critics.
Among those who dislike Trump, Pence is seen as a Trump acolyte who enabled his bad behavior for four years. And those who love Trump blame Pence for not blocking the confirmation of Joe Biden’s presidential victory on January 6, 2021 — a power the former vice president did not have.
Trump loyalists infamously chanted, “Hang Mike Pence” as he stormed the United States Capitol and his political standing within the Republican Party never recovered.
“I think Mike Pence is really screwed,” said former New Hampshire GOP chairwoman Jennifer Horn. “He can’t win. There is no circumstance and no race that Mike Pence will ever win. It’s sad.”
New Hampshire, a state that has traditionally turned away from Pence’s kind of religious conservatism, would be an unlikely comeback ground for the evangelical Christian who launched his 2024 campaign in Iowa. Still, politicians of all stripes managed to break through the years in a state that often rewarded those willing to invest time and attention.
Former President Bill Clinton became the “comeback kid” after finishing second here in 1992. The state also helped resurrect struggling Republican John McCain’s campaign in 2008. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a religious conservative like Pence, scored second in 2016.
Still, the road to relevance for anyone who isn’t Trump’s nominee in 2024 will be steep.
Pence is essentially trying to reinvent himself as he reintroduces himself to New Hampshire voters. He and his team have adopted a new mantra: “He’s well known but not well known.”
At his first stop in New Hampshire this week, Pence avoided talking about his years as vice president and did not mention 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 takeover.
He called for a muscular foreign policy, a commitment to conservative social values and a sharp reduction in federal spending. He did not mention his support for a federal abortion ban. In Trump’s resignation, 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 were evident on his New Hampshire tour.
The host of Wednesday’s event, former state Senate majority leader Bob Clegg, encouraged all attendees 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 said with a laugh. He later said, “We are working 2012 to make sure we get enough donors to be on that debate stage.”
Despite some flak, 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 only say, “We’re getting there” when asked how close the campaign was to the donor threshold.
Saltsman dismissed Pence’s struggle as a byproduct of the crowded field, which includes wealthy candidates like North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who offered gift cards to donors, and others like DeSantis, whose allied super PAC raised more than $100 million.
“There’s a lot of exhaustion,” Saltsman said. “And one thing I know for a fact is that I haven’t seen a primary in the summer to the Iowa caucus or the New Hampshire primary in the winter yet.”
Sununu, the governor of New Hampshire, has also bet on the weight of history to help stop Trump. He noted that primary voters wait until a few weeks before the primary to finalize their decision.
The New Hampshire primary is still six months away.
In an interview, Sununu warned that Trump has no chance of winning the general election and would drag the rest of the party down with him if he were on the November ballot.
“I expect most people to come to their senses,” Sununu said. “There is still plenty of time for this roller coaster ride to play out.”
Pence, meanwhile, is seeking the help of a higher power.
“This is a nation of faith,” he told the modest gathering of primary voters gathered in Clegg’s backyard. “If we lead our party toward a future based on those time-honored conservative principles that have brought our party to victory and success for the American people for the past 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 believe that the best days of the greatest nation on earth are yet to come.”