Eager for new leadership, New Hampshire Republicans welcome Ron DeSantis’ visit to Concord

By ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL

Monitor staff

Published: 08-01-2023 6:21 PM

Clutching a cup of coffee at The Windmill Restaurant in East Concord on Tuesday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took a seat next to breakfast diners to chat about everything from Obamacare and the Commerce Clause in the U.S. Constitution, to his kids’ tendencies to lose baseballs and other sports gear with frustrating regularity.

One man even asked DeSantis, who played baseball at Yale, if he could give him an autographed baseball. With no baseball in sight, DeSantis said he’d sign one the next time the two crossed paths if the man brings one along.

Amid the policy talk and pancakes, a common theme emerged above all: Would DeSantis be more likely than former President Donald Trump to beat President Joe Biden in 2024?

Charlie Baer, a retired assistant U.S. attorney who now lives in Andover, thinks so. Baer actively campaigned for Trump in 2016 and 2020. He’s since moved on to DeSantis.

“I think the Governor has a much better chance of winning the (general) election,” Baer said. “I think Donald Trump did a good job as president, but I think he has a mouth problem and does not run as positive a campaign. I think he does too much negative in his campaign, whereas I'm very happy with Governor DeSantis’ positive approach to things.”

Positive can be a matter of perspective. DeSantis isn’t shy about talking about his crusade against “wokeness,” or taking jabs at Trump, including in a video that a prominent group of LGBTQ Republicans say “ventured into homophobic territory.” On other matters, he’s less forward, like his refusal to say whether he’d sign a national six-week abortion ban similar to the one he signed in Florida.

Few of those issues came up in conversations with prospective voters at the Windmill, who seemed excited to meet one of the top candidates campaigning in the Granite State.

Outlining DeSantis’ work in Florida, Baer pointed to his decision to reopen schools earlier than other states during the COVID-19 pandemic, his support for law enforcement and his work to restore the Everglades, a vital ecosystem in the Sunshine State.

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Concord Republican Chris Wood articulated similar appreciation, while heavily emphasizing the need for new leadership in the Republican party.

“I think he'd bring a little more sanity to the approach of the office,” Wood said of what a DeSantis presidency could look like. “Trump could conceivably get reelected – I don't think it's likely – but he could. But what would a second term look like? I don't think it'd be pretty. We don't need the Republican Party set any further back. I think DeSantis is the future. I haven't endorsed him yet, but I'm thinking about it. Impressive guy.”

Last week, the DeSantis campaign laid off a third of its staff amid a financial crunch. In a New York Times/Siena poll published earlier this week, DeSantis placed in a distant second among Republican primary candidates at 17%, well behind Trump; when respondents were asked to choose only between DeSantis and Trump, the Florida governor still lagged behind, 62%-31%. 

With still about five months until voters cast their ballots in the New Hampshire primary (a date has not yet been set), there’s certainly time for DeSantis’ campaign to gain ground. With more legal troubles ahead for Trump, perhaps voters would look for an alternative. But previous indictments of the former president have not led to any mass defections, and there’s little evidence to suggest additional legal troubles would move the needle much in the primary.

Concord resident Lynne Bloomquist is still undecided on who to support. Her main focus is finding the candidate who can, in her view, unite the country.

“My concern is bringing the country together and moving forward,” she said, minutes after she had a front-row seat to hear DeSantis speak. “Our foundation has eroded. It seems like disrespect is running rampant, and we need to bring respect back into our schools, into our families, into our communities. ... Regardless of what our personal ideologies might be, respect is paramount. If we can achieve respect, I believe things will begin to fall into place.”

Regardless of who she ends up supporting in the primary, though, she said she’ll get behind the party’s nominee come November 2024, like she did with Trump in 2016 and 2020.

DeSantis was probably the seventh candidate she’s met so far this cycle, she estimated, and this ability for her and other voters to continue to engage in authentic conversa tion with the candidates demonstrates the pride New Hampshire  primary voters still take in going first in the nation.

“I was pleased to have this opportunity, and I'm excited,” Bloomquist said. “This is my first close gathering with the Governor. This kind of event is key to how we're all in the process, and it's very important.”

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