Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and New Hampshire aren’t exactly made for each other.
The “Live Free or Die” state that elected an abortion rights advocate four-time Republican governor It doesn’t seem like a good fit for a fierce culture warrior who signed a six-week abortion ban.
To further complicate matters, DeSantis’ early efforts to break through in the state that will host the nation’s first Republican presidential primary have been mixed.
gone a little early voting lead about former President Donald Trump. His supportive super PAC has spent a tiny fraction of what he is spending on ads in other early states and hasn’t been on the airwaves since early May. His first visit as an official candidate raised questions about his reluctance to take questions from voters.
And DeSantis’ scheduled return to the state on Tuesday produced another setback: a confrontation with a group of women angry that he scheduled an event on the same day as a Trump-led luncheon.
But there have been positive moments, like DeSantis selling out a Republican dinner earlier this year.
New Hampshire will be an important state for DeSantis to prove he can take on Trump, who convincingly won the primary there in 2016. If he wins the early caucuses in Iowa but then loses in New Hampshire, it will be a major bump in the road. . the impulse of him. And if he loses both states, serious questions will be raised about his ability to win the Republican nomination.
However, New Hampshire observers see a path for DeSantis. They point to a Republican constituency showing signs of interest in some of the cultural issues around which DeSantis built his campaign. Republican voters there also have a history of accepting a candidate who takes a hard line on immigration, like Trump. Meanwhile, the governor’s messaging in the state has focused on his resume, military background and Covid-era policiesand stayed away from social issues like abortion.
“It’s wide open,” said Dave Carney, a longtime New Hampshire-based Republican strategist and veteran of presidential campaigns who is not affiliated with any 2024 candidate. in a race of two».
The DeSantis-aligned super PAC Never Back Down has spent heavily in the early state advertising landscape, with New Hampshire a notable exception.
Of the $14.6 million it has spent on ads so far, $2.7 million was spent in Iowa, $1.8 million in South Carolina, $600,000 in Nevada and just $74,000 in New Hampshire. , a state where the super PAC has been off the air for more than a month, according to data from ad tracking firm AdImpact.
Never Back Down insists it’s not for a lack of interest in New Hampshire and says it plans to invest resources in organizing on the ground and outreach to voters. And a senior super PAC official told NBC News that the group is ahead of its goals there, hitting them. at a faster rate than in the other top three states.
«By mid-July, we would have spoken to each of our top targets,» said Kristin Davison, Never Back Down’s director of operations.
The PAC has eight employees in the state and has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on its field game, as well as other modes of contacting voters, including 10 pieces of mail, digital advertising, a text message operation, and outreach. door to door. Davison said.
«That’s a lot of people, that’s a lot of money,» he added. «It’s a very targeted and data-driven effort.»
The DeSantis campaign also expressed confidence in New Hampshire.
«Governor DeSantis is working tirelessly to ensure that his message to restore sanity to this country and lead our Great American Comeback reaches every last primary voter in New Hampshire, and we have a premier organization in the state to help him do it,» DeSantis said campaign press secretary Bryan Griffin in a statement to NBC News.
The Trump campaign declined to officially respond for this article.
Still, Trump has led by more than 20 points in New Hampshire since April. And DeSantis’ team has been trying to put up some spirited fights at Granite State, sometimes upsetting Trump along the way.
Last week, not to be outdone by Trump’s sold-out luncheon for the New Hampshire Federation of Republican Women, the DeSantis campaign scheduled a rival event in other parts of the state. all that trapped the anger of the group of women. The organization publicly complained, expressing “disappointment” in DeSantis. But after that, several women quit, expressing their own disappointment with the group for not being impartial.
Kate Day, who once served as Trump’s delegate, resigned from her advisory board position after the group criticized DeSantis for scheduling her event at the same time as his Lilac Luncheon. Day supports DeSantis, but said she quit because she thought the group’s actions went against her commitment to remain impartial as an organization.
She said no one in DeSantis’ orbit contacted her before she made her decision.
“Trump was great for his time. We are ready to move on. A lot of people have Trump fatigue,” Day said.
“It shows this is absolutely escalating,” Matthew Bartlett, a New Hampshire native Republican political operative in the state, said of the dispute that erupted between the two campaigns this week.
Bartlett said he suspected the Trump team was behind the group’s criticism of DeSantis and that it was foolish to expect a presidential candidate not to run in one of the most competitive presidential states. “This is the game. This is presidential policy. This is smash mouth. You better bring your A game; It’s not the time for fans.»
New Hampshire is expected to hold the first GOP presidential primary following the party’s caucuses in Iowa. The first two states have different voter profiles, with evangelicals accounting for a large portion of Iowa’s caucus attendees and the electorate of The New Hampshire primary leans more toward independence or libertarianism.
Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who finished second to Trump in the 2016 New Hampshire Republican primary, warned DeSantis not to campaign on a message to win Iowa and another in New Hampshire.
«I never thought this whole social thing was really a hit anyway, but if he’s like that, that’s what he’s got to do,» said Kasich, an NBC News contributor who has become known as a strident anti- Trump’s voice in the party. “Your message will probably resonate better in some places than in others. But if you’re trying to figure out, ‘Well, how do I take the message, change this one, and try to use that one?’ — for me, it’s not worth it.”
Carney, the longtime New Hampshire strategist, said DeSantis’ focus on cultural and social issues — gender-affirming care and school curriculum, for example — is better framed for voters there as rights issues. parents.
“We don’t do a lot of church events like they do in Iowa,” Carney said. “I don’t know if there’s a big lane open for some of the people who are [out for] the evangelical vote. Probably a third or something of the primary vote. But I don’t think a third is available. Trump has plenty of that.»
Bill O’Brien, a GOP operative who spearheaded Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s ticket in the state and now represents the state on the Republican National Committee, said he is seeing the issues of the culture war gain steam.
“I think there is a lot of concern about what is happening at the national level. We certainly don’t approach it with the same intense religious focus that we do in other states, but there is great concern for parental rights among primary voters here,” O’Brien said.
But there’s still the factor of how Trump’s legal troubles will influence the primary. A new national NBC News poll found the former president’s lead in the Republican primary field increased after his latest impeachment.
O’Brien noted that he is seeing «deep anger» spreading throughout the state party over the actions of the federal government and that people who said they would never vote for Trump again now swear they will, just to spite the government. .
“We didn’t understand the intensity of that,” he said of Cruz’s team in 2016 and support for Trump. «It’s a bit similar this time.»
So far, the battle on the airwaves in New Hampshire hasn’t exactly gotten underway. The top ad spender by a significant margin is businessman Perry Johnson, according to AdImpact, while the only candidates spending at least six figures on ads are South Carolina Senator Tim Scott and North Dakota Governor , Doug Burgum.
Trump, for the moment, is the clear favorite. Carney questioned why DeSantis waited so long to officially enter the race, instead of jumping in January, when he could have capitalized on his «red hot» status. At the time, DeSantis had a 12-point lead over Trump, according to a University of New Hampshire study. survey.
«Right now,» Carney said, «the other candidates aren’t saying, ‘Oooo, man, Ron DeSantis has 16%, let’s go back.'»