But Stepanek’s involvement is also likely to rankle some Republican activists. State committee members were clamoring for a change in party leadership after a disastrous election in which the GOP’s slate of hard-right, pro-Trump congressional candidates got pummeled and the party lost seats in the state Legislature. Stepanek was expected to face a challenger for party chair before he decided not to seek a third term.
And it will do little to quell concern among some of Trump’s former allies in the state about the seriousness of his operation as he mounts his third bid for the White House.
Associates from Trump’s past campaigns have expressed frustration with what they describe as lackluster — or nonexistent — communication since his November launch. At least one key ally was left in the dark about the former president’s visit this weekend, his first trip back to the state since 2020.
And while Trump will likely lock in some old supporters during his visit, others are holding off on recommitting as they wait to see how the Republican primary develops.
Interviews with 16 former Trump aides and allies, veteran presidential campaign operatives and current and former party officials revealed heavy interest among Republican operatives and activists in his biggest potential rival — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
And a University of New Hampshire survey released this week showed the Florida governor with a 12-point lead over Trump among likely New Hampshire GOP primary voters — despite DeSantis not setting foot in the state in recent months. Younger operatives in particular expressed an eagerness to be scooped up by DeSantis, whom they see as the next big thing.
“President Trump starts the [New Hampshire] primary season as a frontrunner but his standing isn’t what it once was,” veteran New Hampshire consultant Jim Merrill said. “There is curiosity among voters and operatives alike to check out the potential field.”
Ron to the Rescue, a pro-DeSantis super PAC formed after the midterms to boost the governor if he runs for president, is also setting up shop at the New Hampshire GOP’s meeting Saturday. The PAC has been planning to attend the event for a couple of months — long before Trump was set to deliver the keynote — to hand out DeSantis-themed swag like hats and koozies and to sign up in-state volunteers to support its effort.
Trump’s last-minute appearance “really throws this intriguing dynamic into the whole event,” John Thomas, a GOP consultant who founded the PAC, said in an interview.
Other potential contenders are also drawing interest — and have spent years cutting into Trump’s advantages in New Hampshire. Former Vice President Mike Pence, former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have become fixtures in the state after making several visits each the past two years. Former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has also made the trek north to “Politics & Eggs” at St. Anselm, a prerequisite stop for would-be presidential hopefuls. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) has headlined multiple party fundraisers over the years.
The state’s popular four-term governor, Chris Sununu, is a wildcard. Sununu hasn’t ruled out a presidential bid and has been acting like someone who’s gearing up to run, though several seasoned operatives in the state doubt he’ll go for it after declining to run for Senate last year.
The interviews with Republicans highlight the steep hurdles ahead for Trump in New Hampshire. Despite his pedigree as former president and de facto leader of the GOP, nothing will be handed to him.
Some Republicans see Trump’s early trip as a sign the former president expects a crowded primary — and is willing to compete. Though the former president has been absent from the state since 2020, he still has time to assemble a team and organize his campaign, especially with other competitors taking their time getting in.
On Saturday, he’ll speak directly to a few hundred GOP activists in a high school auditorium — in contrast to the arena-size crowds he commanded in the run-up to the 2020 election. Trump will then head to South Carolina for another smaller-scale event.
“This shows me that one, he’s going to work to win this nomination and two, he’s not taking it for granted,” longtime New Hampshire Republican consultant Mike Dennehy said.
Republicans have been waiting for Trump to emerge from Mar-a-Lago after keeping an uncharacteristically low profile since his fall announcement.
His lack of infrastructure buildup in New Hampshire had concerned some Republicans who worked on his previous campaigns. His New Hampshire trip wasn’t added to his schedule until Monday, nearly two weeks after aides announced plans for an event in South Carolina.
Joshua Whitehouse, who served as Trump’s New Hampshire coalitions director in 2016 and went on to work in his administration, said in an interview that the former president’s “grassroots are still there” but that the “main gap is staffing and infrastructure.”
“Once he puts those ducks in a row, he can be smooth sailing,” Whitehouse said.