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Dec 12, 2023, 6:19pm EST
politics

Vivek Ramaswamy sees an opening for a candidate willing to court the fringe

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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The Scene

HAMPTON, N.H. – The drinks were free at Wally’s on Sunday night, courtesy of Vivek Ramaswamy. The crowd was ready for him, cheering every promise — to “end affirmative action,” to “wage war on our shadow government” — as he paced in front of a massive American flag.

“We will use our own military to secure our southern border, and our northern border, too!” said Ramaswamy. “I’ve been there. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. It’s wide open!”

“It’s too close to home!” said a bearded man, standing right in front of the stage.

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“It’s a joke, and they’re not even going to talk about it,” said Ramaswamy.

“I’ll shoot that motherfucker if he comes to my house!” said the man, who later gave only his first name, Mike.

“Well, you have a Second Amendment for a reason — to defend yourself from governmental overreach,” said Ramaswamy.

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After the speech, Mike told Semafor that he’d been outraged by reports of migrants crossing the border, then walking over Texans’ property. Ramaswamy told reporters that he’d only heard “incoherent shouting” and a man with “a Second Amendment shirt or something like that.” (The shirt read: “America: Live it, love it, or get the hell out.”)

“Obviously, I’m never going to advocate for any kind of violent or criminal behavior,” said the candidate.

Ramaswamy’s eight-figure self-funding, constant campaigning, and social media omnipresence have kept him in a race that better-known Republicans have already given up on. He polls in the mid-single digits, here and in Iowa, giving out “TRUTH” hats and condemning Donald Trump’s other rivals as corrupt non-starters.

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The challenge for Ramaswamy is finding a niche to claim this cycle that comes with any more voters than that. Six weeks out from the first Republican primary, the race for New Hampshire has become a battle between the MAGA electorate, and the remaining moderates and independents who can pull a GOP ballot for something else. Donald Trump is far ahead of the field; Nikki Haley, who’ll be endorsed by Gov. Chris Sununu tonight, is battling Chris Christie for a sizable Trump-skeptical vote. That leaves the candidates running as next-step, next-generation MAGA candidates — Ramaswamy and Ron DeSantis — looking to somehow stand out with Trump himself still on the scene.

Before Trump, New Hampshire’s libertarian-leaning, anti-establishment, anti-war voters were a political force, handing 23% of the 2012 primary vote to Rep. Ron Paul. In 2016, Trump absorbed most of that vote, ending the presidential aspirations of Sen. Rand Paul.

“There’s a screw-the-establishment mindset that’s very much prevalent out there,” said Ramaswamy strategist Michael Biundo, who worked for Rand Paul’s 2016 campaign, then for Trump. “There’s an underlying aggravation with the whole system. Vivek is more aligned with that part of the party than anybody else.”

That message is looking more and more like the future of the party. But in the present, the former president still commands most of those voters, having mainstreamed ideas that the old GOP kept to its ideological outskirts. Ramaswamy, hunting for MAGA voters who might be ready for a change, has tried to get their attention by one-upping him.

Trump has pledged to pardon a “large portion” of people arrested for their actions on Jan. 6, 2021, and recorded a song with some of the prisoners; Ramaswamy says he’ll pardon them, plus Julian Assange, plus Trump himself, “on day one.” Trump gave a 2015 interview to InfoWars founder Alex Jones; Jones has called Ramaswamy “Alex Jones 2.0.” Hours before his Hampton appearance, Ramaswamy appeared on an X space with Elon Musk and Andrew Tate, celebrating Jones’ return to the platform after being banned for years.

“Welcome back, Alex Jones,” Ramaswamy said in Hampton.

Asked who might be receptive to that message, Ramaswamy mentioned “people who like the First Amendment and freedom of speech in the United States.” Jones, he added, told him he’d been “wrong about Sandy Hook,” recanting his speculation that the 2012 elementary school massacre was a hoax to build support for gun control — a high-profile campaign of his that’s cost him over $1 billion in pending damages from grieving families. Even Musk initially balked at embracing Jones, citing his personal disgust over the issue.

Ramaswamy’s approach hasn’t boosted him in polls, which have also found voters seem to like him less the more they see him debate. He questions the validity of those surveys, which may not capture the new voters he’s trying to win. What’s clear is that his message has made him more popular with a set of conservative influencers and voters who worry that truth-tellers are in danger.

Last week, video of a self-identified ex-FBI agent telling Ramaswamy to “be careful” went viral on the right. On Monday, the Department of Justice announced the arrest of a New Hampshire man who’d threatened to “blow [the candidate’s] brains out.” In Nashua, the candidate addressed reporters on the threat, thanking law enforcement for keeping him safe, and getting one skeptical question: Was he rethinking his plan to shut down the FBI?

“On the contrary,” said Ramaswamy, “the 15,000 frontline agents are doing immensely important work.” He would break up the FBI, and reassign the agents, which no other candidate could promise.

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David’s view

The New Hampshire primary looks increasingly like a race, led by Nikki Haley, to consolidate Trump skeptics. Last week’s debate might have been the last chance for Ramaswamy to confront Haley — which he took full advantage of, calling her “corrupt” (with a visual aid to drive the point home).

What’s his role in this race now? He’s channeling and amplifying the voters who have the least faith in the old GOP, helping Trump on the margins and building his reputation on the new right. (In Hampton, he even defended Trump from criticism for saying he’d only act as a ”dictator” on “day one” of his presidency, saying that a reporter wanted to “spin up some controversy where one really doesn’t exist.”) Before last week’s debate, the candidate expanded his list of “Ten Truths” — two banners listing them are displayed at every campaign event — with ten new ones.

Truth number one: “January 6 looks more and more like entrapment.” Truth number four: “the Great Replacement theory,” that the global elite want to supplant natural-born Americans with non-white migrants, is “basic immigration policy for the modern Democrat Party.” One of the original Ten Truths was “there are two genders,” and one of the new ones went further: “Trans is a mental health disorder.”

Ramaswamy hit most of those points in the last debate — in one attention-getting moment he suggested that Jan. 6 was (against all evidence) an “inside job” and talked up the “Great Replacement” theory, which other Republicans shy away from, because of its adoption by multiple mass shooters. That brashness has made Ramaswamy an effective wingman for Trump — and, very likely, a future campaign surrogate. Some of the voters I talked to, including Mike in Hampton, said that they loved the 38-year old candidate but would be voting for the former president. If Haley gets what she wants in New Hampshire — a clean shot at Trump, as the only challenger who can beat him — Ramaswamy will still be there, warning that the GOP establishment is trying to stop the revolution and risk (as his hand-outs say) World War III.

On Monday, in Nashua, Ramaswamy’s voters thanked him for sticking to it. State Rep. David Love appreciated that the candidate had brought the Jan. 6 message to the debate.

“I’ve watched a lot of that on TV,” Love told Ramaswamy. “And I’ve watched those Capitol policemen take those barriers down, and invite people into the Capitol.” After the event, he explained why he trusted the new guy to deliver on this: “I think President Trump is doing it more as a revenge thing, and Vivek wants to do the right thing.”

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The View From From other Republicans

The next conversation in New Hampshire is going to be: What is everybody else doing here? At a crypto policy forum on Monday, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he was remaining in the race because the theory that an anti-Trump vote could consolidate was wrong, regardless of the candidate attempting it.

“Doug Burgum dropped out, Mike Pence dropped out, Tim Scott dropped out, and Trump’s numbers went up,” said Hutchinson.

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Notable

  • For NBC News, Katherine Koreski noticed that Ramaswamy had started to speculate on his future if he lost the nomination. “Obviously, I’ll rethink things,” he said in Iowa, on whether he’d keep running if he didn’t “shock the world” in the caucuses.
  • WMUR’s Adam Sexton broke the news that Sununu would endorse Haley, after campaigning alongside other non-Trump candidates: “This could be the fuel she needs for another boost in the polls that puts her basically in position for a one-on-one contest with Trump in the home stretch.”
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