In this edition: The GOP’s “persuaders” hit New Hampshire, DeSantis starts to reshape the primary, and new polls show how far any Biden or Trump challenger still needs to climb.
On the road with the Republican “persuasion” candidates
REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo
RYE, N.H. – Nikki Haley asked the question four times on Wednesday, in four different cities. It got the best response, a mixture of groans and murmurs, at a “No BS Barbecue” hosted by former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown.
“Anybody know about Dylan Mulvaney?” Haley asked, testing the crowd’s awareness of the trans influencer who sparked a nationwide conservative boycott of Bud Light after she posted about how the brand’s marketing team had mailed her a customized beer can. “Make no mistake, that is a guy dressed up like a girl mocking women. Women do not act like that. And you’ve got these companies glorifying it.”
The repeated riff was meant to be the applause line for one of the top candidates running on their ability to win back moderates in the suburbs who have fled the Republican Party in the Donald Trump era.
Haley and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who both stumped in New Hampshire this week as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis entered the race at a solid no. 2 spot, are trying to position themselves as the GOP’s most electable options — non-white, Generation Xers who Democrats are scared to run against.
Haley is best known nationally for bringing together Democrats and Republicans to take down the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse after a white supremacist massacred Black churchgoers. Scott is highly regarded in the Senate by members of both parties, and his lesser-known signature issue — tax credits for “Opportunity Zones” — has bipartisan roots even as it was enacted in Trump’s party-line tax law.
Critical to their pitch: The idea that they can grow the party’s tent by speaking to voters who are not invested in the same inward-looking grievances that the MAGA wing has elevated since Trump took over.
“We need a president who persuades not just our friends and our base,” Scott said in his announcement speech this week. “We need a president that persuades.”
The two candidates are almost invariably described in press reports as “sunny” or “upbeat” or “optimistic” in contrast to the raging Trump or scowling DeSantis, who are typically portrayed as hardliners devoted to firing up their own base with doom and gloom warnings of leftist subversion.
In Rye, at the end of a day when multiple voters asked how Haley distinguished herself from the field, she cited her personal favorable ratings in South Carolina and nationally. “If you look at the polling,” she said, “I have the least negatives of anybody in the race, and I’m the most likely to win a general election.”
On the trail though, Scott and Haley’s differences from the frontrunners are often more tell than show. In key ways, they’re leaning into some of the same tendencies and topics.
In a Thursday visit with the New Hampshire Federation of Republican Women, Scott handed out roses to attendees and told his personal story, growing from a kid “as lost as a goose in a rainstorm” to a senator with an “opportunity agenda” of school choice and fewer government handouts. But his personal story is also continuously framed as a rejoinder to a dangerous leftist movement, who he called “the enemy for the American people” on Fox News last month. And he’s not afraid to engage in culture war topics, telling voters at his event that “transgender ideology is ruining women’s sports” and that he would “stop socially experimenting with the American military.”
On the toughest “persuasion” issue of them all, both candidates have stuck to their consistently anti-abortion record while trying to carve out a little rhetorical running room. Haley has told voters a federal law outlawing abortion is unlikely to ever pass, even if she doesn’t oppose the idea; pressed at a Politics and Eggs breakfast on Wednesday, she said she would sign one “if there’s 60 votes” and it cleared the Senate. Scott struggled with the topic in his campaign run-up, but said he’d back a 20-week federal ban.
Notably, neither candidate did a press gaggle (a free-for-all where the reporters in the room can ask anything) in New Hampshire, but Haley briefly told Fox News that DeSantis was “copying” Trump, citing “the way his hand gestures are” and his synchronicity on Ukraine. Do you care which reporters get to ask questions? Probably not! But it’s odd that these candidates are passing up chances to reach non-MAGA voters through the traditional media given the premise of their campaigns.
What’s clear so far is that the terms of this primary are being set by Trump and DeSantis. The latter’s current signature issue is an ongoing brawl with Disney over its opposition to a bill he boasts banished “woke gender ideology” from the classroom. On Thursday, he attacked Trump for siding with Disney, which he described as “a multinational corporation that wants to sexualize kids.”
DeSantis pairs his pitch to the GOP’s most conservative voters with a claim to electability — the scale of his 2022 victory in Florida, a landslide that he credits to his willingness to battle left-wing orthodoxy without apology.
There are still some key differences between the persuaders and the more MAGA wing, especially on foreign policy and the former president’s efforts to overturn the election, even if they’re emphasized less often.
At her stops, when prompted by voters, Haley sketched out three differences between herself and Trump. “He thinks that January 6 was a beautiful day; I think January 6 was a terrible day,” she said in Rye. “He thinks that we don’t need to worry about Russia or Ukraine; I think a Ukraine victory is good for American national security. He hasn’t had a problem with spending.”
DeSantis, by contrast, said in his post-announcement interviews that he’d consider pardoning people who participated in Jan. 6 riots, that he wanted a “settlement” between Russia and Ukraine, and that he’d fire Trump-appointed FBI Director Christopher Wray on his first day in the White House.
But the big ideas, about how a post-Biden president would remake the government, were still being driven by Trump, DeSantis, and the conservative media infrastructure that Republicans trust more than traditional TV and newspapers. At the Women for Nikki event, when one voter asked how she’d go about “dismantling the deep state,” Haley accepted the premise, saying that she’d always put “people who understood their consumers” in key government positions.
“I am very aware of a deep state,” she said. “It’s not just in D.C., it’s in every one of our states.”
Some voters, looking for GOP candidates with broader appeal, preferred another approach.
“I want them to start focusing on the actual issues,” said Catherine Johnson, a former Republican who’d left the party over Trump, but came to a Women for Nikki town hall on Wednesday to see if the former U.N. ambassador could persuade her. “I’m really tired of this talk about critical race theory, the woke agenda, and banning of books. I want to know how well they’re gonna solve our problems.”
ROOM FOR DISAGREEMENT
Tone does matter, and some voters I talked to said that they viewed both candidates as inspiring. Mission accomplished, even if the crowds were smaller than the ones expected for DeSantis next week. In the Wall Street Journal, Lance Morrow writes that Scott’s “record is sparse” and his run “isn’t so much his qualifications as statesman or politician,” but his potential appeal to exhausted voters. “The key, rather, is in his temperament—his manifest goodwill.”
It wasn’t easy to break into the DeSantis/Trump conversation this week, but Haley tried with a proposal to “fix veterans’ healthcare” by forcing members of Congress to get coverage from the Veterans Affairs Administration.
Attorney Gen. Ken Paxton’s career was in sudden, serious danger on Friday, after an investigative committee in the GOP-led House issued 20 articles of impeachment. Among the charges: Paxton “misused government resources,” terminated whistleblowers, and made false statements in official records. Paxton has been under investigation for most of his time in office, but won by 10 points in 2022 after beating back challengers (including George P. Bush) who warned that his scandals would catch up to him and risk control of the office.
Donald J. Trump for President 2024, “Starting Day One.” The Trump campaign has spent millions of dollars on paid messaging to tear down DeSantis — not enough to scare him out of running, but enough to pad Trump’s lead. The bulk of the first Trump ad since DeSantis announced is footage that only a former president can get. The imagery includes a walk out of the Oval Office, a dramatic shot next to Marine One, a July 4 jet flyover, and time-lapse footage of the border wall going up. Then the kicker: A clip from the 2018 DeSantis ad where the future governor helps his toddler build a toy wall.
Never Back Down, “A President for the People.”The DeSantis super PAC’s first post-announcement ad accidentally reveals the Trump optics advantage. It states the crisis (“America has fallen,” with footage of a drag queen story hour), introduces the governor (“a man of steel roots”), and recaps his COVID response as DeSantis gives a victory speech. Then, it spices up footage from a pre-midterm rally with fake footage (and sound) of jets flying overhead. The special effect was first noticed by Axios.
“Chum for the media.” That’s what DeSantis campaign pollster Ryan Tyson called national polling on Wednesday, in a meeting where donors saw state-by-state polls, bursting with opportunities to beat Trump. The theory there is that Trump’s support is thin, and could be melted by DeSantis, who Republican voters view just as favorably. DeSantis and Trump were tied among “conservative” primary voters in March, and Trump now leads with those voters by 29 points.
The Biden administration is possibly at a crisis point, as Democrats in Congress panic over what might be given away to raise the debt limit. The effect on Democratic voters? They’re sticking with Biden. One in four Democrats still favor one of Biden’s challengers, and a slight decline in their support since last month hasn’t helped him: Those voters now say they don’t know who they’d back. Williamson lost her campaign manager and his deputy, and Kennedy’s held just two public events, at a vaccine skeptic conference in New Hampshire and the Bitcoin conference in Miami. Biden’s campaign has paid for ads; their campaigns haven’t.
Ron DeSantis spent his first day as a presidential candidate giving interviews to conservative and early-state media outlets, and piling up cash. On Thursday, his campaign claimed to have raised $8.2 million in 24 hours, though it didn’t delineate two things — how much came from small donors, and how much went into the general election fund that can’t be tapped unless he’s the nominee.
Speaking anonymously, a number of Tallahassee lobbyists told NBC News that they were being urged to give to DeSantis, too, and worried about the implications if they didn’t. DeSantis, who has line-item veto power, has sometimes used it to excise spending requested by political opponents. Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando-area Democrat, told Semafor that the governor had repeatedly sliced out some central Florida funding to deprive opponents who’d put it into the budgets.
Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano announced on Thursday that he would “continue to serve in Harrisburg” and forgo a challenge to Sen. Bob Casey, thrilling Republicans who worried that he’d win the nomination if he ran. Dave McCormick, the wealthy ex-Bridgewater Associates CEO who narrowly lost the party’s 2022 Senate nomination, immediately thanked Mastriano for his service and said he was still “seriously considering” a run.
“I like to tease the governor,” says Jason Osborne. The New Hampshire House majority leader, a libertarian-minded Republican, endorsed Ron DeSantis for president on May 4. Gov. Chris Sununu was talking about running, too. So, “just for funsies,” Osborne put an endorsement letter for DeSantis on Sununu’s desk, with a post-it note suggestion: “Hope to get you on board soon.”
It didn’t work, but Osborne was happy to see DeSantis make his run official on Wednesday. He talked with Americana about why he backed him over the field while disagreeing with some of his social conservative priorities in Florida — and despite Sununu’s warning that DeSantis can’t win.
Americana: Why’d you make the endorsement?
Jason Osborne: President Trump got in earlier than anyone would normally even think about it, and I felt like someone needed to present an alternative. Gov. DeSantis has quite a fan base here in New Hampshire, particularly among my caucus, who were very much involved in the fight against COVID lockdowns and masking and vaccine mandates and things that Gov. DeSantis was standing up against.
Americana: I’ve been covering these primaries since 2008, and New Hampshire’s been tough for social conservatives. They win in Iowa, and then they don’t play here. How would it be different for DeSantis?
Jason Osborne: He knows that Florida isn’t New Hampshire and Connecticut isn’t Alabama. Some of the policies that he enacted with a supermajority legislature would not fly here in New Hampshire. He knows that. That’s not going to be his agenda at the federal level, to impose Florida values on everyone else.
Everybody wants some kind of compromise on the abortion issue. They want parents to know what’s going on in schools. And they don’t want pornography being peddled in the schools to their 5-year-olds. But how to exactly address those issues in every state is going to be a little different.
Americana: Gov. Sununu has said that the six-week abortion ban DeSantis signed would be a disaster.
Jason Osborne: I am 100% positive he is not going to be pushing a six-week national abortion ban.
Americana: So what changes for New Hampshire if he wins?
Jason Osborne: A president by himself can’t do anything at all, right? He needs to have a Congress on board with the same agenda. He did that in Florida. He ran for re-election and elected an entire super-majority legislature. The reason that people like me are supporting Gov. DeSantis is, we’re hoping that he’s able to replicate that on the national level, and trickle it down to all of us at the state level — to fill up my chamber with Republicans. I want to see winners up at the top of the ticket, to help pull up my numbers.
Americana: So it’s less about what he’d do at the federal level?
Jason Osborne: We had this roundtable with him and some legislators last week, and someone asked him, which agency would you get rid of? His quick reaction was, a president can’t do that. Anybody who’s out there talking about just unilaterally abolishing agencies is doesn’t really understand the job. I think he not only understands the separation of powers within the federal government, but he understands the concept of federalism better than any other presidential candidate I’ve ever heard.
Look, we’ve been talking around it. What do I possibly have in common with the DeSantis agenda? He’s passing parental rights legislation. I’m not. I’m trying to legalize marijuana, he’s not. He’s passed radical school choice, I haven’t. I’m here to deliver the product that the people of New Hampshire want. So, yes, my personal views about how society should look differ from Gov. DeSantis. But our understanding of the framework of the American system of government is precisely in line.
Americana: Where would he improve on Trump?
Jason Osborne: When you see a president put forward a very specific agenda and then hire someone to implement that agenda who is diametrically opposed to it — that just leaves me wondering what in the world has really gone on. I’ll just throw out John Bolton as an example.
Americana: When DeSantis was here last week, a lot of the coverage and commentary focused on his interactions at the Red Arrow Diner — basically saying that he came off as awkward. Was that missing anything?
Jason Osborne: Every politician, every human being, has a different personality, and their enemies are gonna play up their weaknesses. Gov. DeSantis’s personality is probably the polar opposite of my governor’s, but they’re both good dudes. And I’m not exactly a social butterfly myself, so I can relate to DeSantis — you know, some of those more awkward exchanges with people. But he’s able to go off the cuff, intelligently.
Americana: And what did you think of the decision to launch like he did, with a conversation on Twitter?
Jason Osborne: It was a cool decision. The idea of it played to his strengths, right? He read that statement at the beginning —- obviously not his strength, he probably should have just skipped that entirely. But then they moved to the questions, and I have it on good authority that those questions were not pre-chosen. That’s where he shone, going off the cuff. The more that they can keep him unscripted and natural, the more people are going to be able to connect with him.
So, yeah, I think that was a great decision. I do wish Elon had his tech working better. Hopefully, he wrote a giant check to the super PAC when it was over.