Nikki Haley’s best — and perhaps last — chance to beat Trump

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With a frigid and anticlimactic Iowa caucus night behind them, the Republican presidential field moved Tuesday to New Hampshire, where Nikki Haley has her best — and perhaps only — chance to prove that Donald Trump can still be beaten in a GOP primary.

The shift means more than a change of scenery: For a brief moment, the spotlight will be on independent voters and non-Trump Republicans, who have only limited sway in most GOP primaries but are a force here and may also play a major role in the November general election.

The prominence of moderates means three things for the GOP:

  • Haley, the former South Carolina governor, has a decent chance of beating the former president in next Tuesday’s primary.
  • But because New Hampshire differs so much from the Republican norm, Trump remains the overwhelming favorite to win almost everywhere else.
  • And the alienation of moderates from the GOP remains a significant risk for Trump’s chances in a general election against President Biden, despite the incumbent’s current weak standing.

Only 10% of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s supporters and 22% of Haley’s backers said they would vote for Trump in a general election matchup against Biden, according to a Suffolk University survey of New Hampshire voters released before Christie dropped out of the race last week.

The general election threat the GOP faces comes from voters like Christine Stover of Strafford, in eastern New Hampshire near the border with Maine, who went out on a recent snowy evening to see Christie conduct a town hall at a barbecue restaurant in nearby Rochester — the last public event he held before quitting.

Stover, a project manager at the local telephone company, said that until recently she had split her votes between Republicans and Democrats. In the 2022 midterm election, she voted a straight Democratic ticket for the first time.

She shifted her vote because of the decision that year by the Republican-appointed justices on the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the ruling that had guaranteed abortion rights in the U.S. for nearly half a century.

“At this point, I don’t see myself ever actually voting for another Republican again” for president, she said, although she was attracted enough by Christie to consider voting for him in the primary.

Her husband, Paul Stover, who voted for Trump in 2016, said he was less certain of his choice this time around, but “I really don’t want to vote for Trump.”

Like many voters, he’s put off thinking about the likelihood of another Trump-Biden choice, hoping it might somehow be avoided.

“I’ll admit it, I haven’t thought that far ahead,” he said when asked what he would do if the rematch occurs. “I’ll think about it more when I have to,” he added. “That could be part denial.”

Moderate voters form a much larger bloc here than in most Republican primaries: Recent polls by Suffolk University of voters in both Iowa and New Hampshire found, for example, that 41% of likely voters in New Hampshire’s Republican primary defined themselves as moderate or liberal compared with 23% of likely caucus goers in Iowa.

By contrast, evangelical Christians, the dominant force in the GOP in much of the country, made up only about one-quarter of the vote in New Hampshire in 2016, the last time Republicans had a nomination contest, according to exit polls. In Iowa, they were almost two-thirds of the voters that year.

In most of the rest of the country, including in Haley’s home state, which votes on Feb. 24, and in California, which votes on March 5, the Republican electorate looks more like the voters in Iowa than those in New Hampshire.

Although Haley is a southern conservative who has had strong evangelical backing in her career, she has become by default the candidate of northern moderates wanting to defeat Trump. It’s an alliance of convenience more than enthusiasm but provides an outlet for a group that increasingly has been pushed to — or beyond — the margins of Republican politics.

Several polls released last week showed her closing in on the lead here, with Trump holding about 4 in 10 likely voters and the former South Carolina governor supported by somewhere between one-quarter and one-third, depending on the survey.

Polls and interviews with voters indicate that she’ll likely pick up most of those who had backed Christie. Their support could give Haley most of the votes she would need to close the gap with Trump.

New Hampshire’s postcard image is of rural towns built around churches with picturesque white steeples. In reality, the majority of the state’s population lives in suburbs within hailing distance of the Boston metropolis. And while the state’s voters are no longer representative of the Republican Party, they do roughly resemble a key nationwide voting bloc — the type of mostly white, middle-of-the-road suburbanites who have abandoned the GOP in droves in the Trump era and who played a major role in driving Democratic victories in the 2022 midterm elections.

Jack Lagasse, an independent who attended the Christie event, said he also expected to vote for Biden, despite worries about “his age, and the fact that if he doesn’t make it through the presidency, we’ll end up with Kamala Harris as the president.”

He would vote for the Democrat “because of the vendetta that Trump has for everybody and the fact that he didn’t want to give up the presidency the last time,” Lagasse said.

“I’m afraid he’s going to try to turn this country into a dictatorship,” he said, noting the argument that Trump’s lawyers had made to an appeals court earlier that day that unless he was impeached first, he would be immune from prosecution for any crime he may have committed while president, even if he ordered the military to assassinate a political rival.

While Trump’s core supporters express fervent enthusiasm for his candidacy, other Republicans show a marked reluctance even when they say they expect they’ll vote for him in the end.

Asked what she would do if faced with a Trump-Biden matchup, Christina Austin, an executive assistant at an auto parts company in Dover, on New Hampshire’s coast, gave a long sigh.

“I’m not certain,” she said. “Biden’s been very, very weak” and is “not doing a lot of good for the country,” she said, then added that Trump and his family have a lot of “baggage.”

The moderate Republicans and independents who say they may vote for Biden aren’t necessarily new defectors from GOP ranks, although some are. Many voted for Biden in 2020 and were drawn to this year’s GOP primary largely by the chance to try to block Trump. But their continued disaffection is a reminder that even as Biden struggles with splits in his party, Trump has alienated a significant share of what was once the Republican vote.

In Suffolk’s New Hampshire poll, 7 in 10 Christie voters said they would back Biden in the event of a Trump-Biden race. More than 4 in 10 Haley backers in Iowa said they would vote for Biden rather than Trump, a Des Moines Register/NBC News poll found.

The loss of such voters worries Ed Huminick, a real estate developer and local Republican official in his home town of Salem, along New Hampshire’s border with Massachusetts. He was a prominent Christie backer and potential convention delegate until the New Jersey governor pulled out and said he now plans to vote for Haley. But he is resigned to the likelihood that her efforts will be for naught.

“I’m a Republican. I will hold my nose and vote Republican” even if that means voting for Trump, he said. “I’m 71 years old, and a Republican since I’m 21 — 50 years,” he added. “That’s longer than Trump’s been a Republican.”

But, he said, other voters whose partisanship is not so ingrained won’t act that way. New Hampshire, a closely divided state, has been slowly shifting toward the Democrats, especially in federal elections, and renominating Trump could create a tipping point for the state, he fears.

“Right now, we have a Republican governor, a Republican state Senate and a Republican House,” he said. If Trump is the nominee, “I’m concerned that … we’ll have a Democratic governor, a Democratic Senate and a Democratic House.”

Like Paul Stover, many have simply decided not to decide for now, hoping that some combination of age, legal drama or mischance might avert a rematch they dread.

When he pulled out of the race, Christie singled out for thanks one supporter, Toni Pappas, a Republican activist and the chair of the board of commissioners for Hillsborough County, which includes Manchester, the state’s largest city.

Asked afterward whether she thought Trump was fit for office, Pappas said: “No, he is not.”

Asked what she would do if he were the party’s nominee, she grimaced slightly before responding, “I don’t know.”

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