Pinch Me? Some Republicans Wonder If Trump's Campaign Is An 'Ambien Dream'

Jan 24, 2016
Originally published on January 25, 2016 10:50 am

If you had to name a state where Donald Trump's political rise has caused the greatest disruption, New Hampshire would be a good pick. Trump has led every poll taken there since June — while tearing up the traditional Republican playbook for winning in New Hampshire.

Trump has avoided the retail politicking that most other campaigns view as a must-do in favor of large rallies. He has never even spent two days back to back in the state campaigning.

And then there's Trump's open disdain for some of the state's traditional Republican power brokers, including the New Hampshire Union Leader, the only statewide paper well-known for its blistering front-page conservative editorials.

The hostility is mutual, especially since the paper endorsed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Trump's been a regular target in the paper's editorial pages and branded a bully by publisher Joe McQuaid. Trump has called McQuaid a "lowlife" and made his paper stump speech fodder during campaign stops in the state.

"The famous paper, right? You know, your little paper, the Union Leader. It's really a dishonest paper, it's terrible. It's a rag," Trump said at a recent rally in New Hampshire.

"In matters large and small about the Union Leader, he lies through his teeth," said McQuaid.

Whatever the case may be, Trump's spat with the paper hasn't hurt him. Polls show Trump getting approximately one-third of the vote in New Hampshire, far ahead of the next-nearest candidate.

For Karl Zahn, a longtime watcher of New Hampshire politics who backs Trump, the whole thing — a Republican candidate taking the fight to the Union Leader and possibly winning, seems almost surreal.

"We were at the thing in Nashua a couple of weeks ago, and he spent 20 minutes just excoriating Joe McQuaid, and I turned to a friend of mine and said, 'Pinch me, this is like an Ambien dream I'm having here. It's crazy,'" said Zahn.

The Union Leader is just one of Trump's high-profile targets in New Hampshire.

There's also former Gov. John Sununu, a White House chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush, and a top adviser to Mitt Romney in 2012. He is also the patriarch of what is probably New Hampshire's most prominent Republican family. One of Sununu's sons was a U.S. senator, and another is running for governor. Sununu has criticized Trump in print and on television, and Trump has gleefully returned fire.

"John H. Sununu has been known — he was fired by Bush. He was fired like a dog. He was fired viciously, and he's such a dumb guy that he doesn't even know he was fired," Trump said at a rally.

During a recent appearance on Bloomberg TV, Sununu warned that nominating Trump would doom local Republicans in November.

"Here in New Hampshire, if Donald Trump is the nominee, we will not get a Republican governor. We will lose the New Hampshire state Senate, and we could lose the New Hampshire state House. It is that bad, and we could lose Sen. [Kelly] Ayotte," said Sununu.

If those Republicans running for office here share that view, they aren't letting on. When asked about Trump, Ayotte, who's being challenged by Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, offered a practiced response and the sense she'd rather talk about something else.

"Well, listen. I mean, I think it's a favorite question of the press to ask all of us what we think about Trump. I plan to support our Republican nominee, but I think there's a long way to go until that decision is made," said Ayotte.

Chris Sununu, the Sununu hoping to be governor, claims he's not paying attention to his father's spat with Donald Trump or what Trump's style of politics might mean for Republicans down-ballot.

"Donald Trump, as far as I'm concerned, is just another candidate. I don't worry about it too much because I try to control the things I can control," said Sununu.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, in this country an election is right on track, although it's moved in unpredictable directions. It's our presidential election, which is heading toward the first caucus in Iowa and the first primary in New Hampshire. In New Hampshire, Donald Trump's political rise has really disrupted Republican politics. As New Hampshire Public Radio's Josh Rogers reports, this could affect races up and down the ticket.

JOSH ROGERS, BYLINE: Little about Donald Trump's approach to courting voters in New Hampshire has been orthodox. Trump favors large rallies over retail politicking. He's never campaigned here two days in a row. And then there's the GOP front-runner's open disdain for some of the state's traditional Republican power brokers, including the New Hampshire Union Leader, the only statewide paper known for its blistering conservative editorials.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: The famous paper, right, you know? Your little paper, the Union Leader. No, it's really a dishonest paper though. It's terrible. So this gets a rag (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

TRUMP: I guess.

ROGERS: Trump's been a regular target and branded a bully by Union Leader publisher Joe McQuaid. Ever since, McQuaid and his paper have become fodder when Trump campaigns here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: So this guy, his name's Joe McQuaid.

(BOOING)

TRUMP: Now, he's a - he's a lowlife. I'm telling you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE MCQUAID: Astounding.

ROGERS: That's McQuaid.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCQUAID: In matters large and small about the Union Leader, he lies through his teeth.

ROGERS: Whatever the case may be, Trump's spat with the paper hasn't hurt him. And for Karl Zahn, a longtime watcher of New Hampshire politics who backs Trump, the whole thing - a GOP candidate taking the fight to the Union Leader and possibly winning - seems almost surreal.

KARL ZAHN: We were at the thing in Nashua a couple of weeks ago, and, you know, he spent 20 minutes excoriating Joe McQuaid. I turned to a friend of mine and just said, pinch me. This is like a - in a Ambien dream I'm having here. It's crazy.

ROGERS: And the Union Leader is just one of Trump's high-profile New Hampshire targets. There's also former Governor John Sununu, a White House chief of staff to the first President Bush and top adviser to Mitt Romney in 2012. He's also the patriarch of what is probably New Hampshire's most prominent Republican family. One of Sununu's sons was a U.S. senator. Another is running for governor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: John H. Sununu has been known - he was fired by Bush. And he was fired like dog. He was fired viciously, and he's such a dumb guy that he doesn't even know he was fired.

ROGERS: Sununu had criticized Trump in print and on television. During a recent appearance on Bloomberg TV, Sununu warned nominating Trump would doom local Republicans in November.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOOMBERG TV BROADCAST)

JOHN SUNUNU: Here in New Hampshire, if Donald Trump's the nominee, we will not get a Republican governor. We will lose the New Hampshire state Senate. And we could lose the New Hampshire state House. It is that bad. And we could lose Senator Ayotte.

ROGERS: If those Republicans running for office here share that view, they aren't letting on. Ask Senator Kelly Ayotte about Trump - she's being challenged by New Hampshire's Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan - and you get a practiced response and the sense she'd rather talk about something else.

KELLY AYOTTE: Well, listen. I mean, I think it's the favorite question of the press to ask all of us what we think about Trump. You know, I plan to support our Republican nominee. But I think there's a long way to go until that decision is made.

ROGERS: Chris Sununu, meanwhile - he's the Sununu hoping to be governor - claims he's not paying attention to his father's spat with Donald Trump or to what Trump's style of politics may mean for Republicans down-ballot.

SUNUNU: Donald Trump is, as far as I'm concerned, is just another candidate. I don't worry about it too much because I try to control things I can control.

ROGERS: Sensible advice perhaps, even if Donald Trump is proving to be anything but just another candidate. For NPR News, I'm Josh Rogers in Concord. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.