President Donald Trump’s Thursday evening rally in Manchester, N.H., is ostensibly about ginning up support for his reelection campaign.
But the state’s establishment GOP class is worried he’ll use the event to do something else: Talk up Corey Lewandowski’s potential 2020 Senate bid.
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Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has relayed concerns about Trump’s controversial former campaign manager to party leadership. Tom Rath, a former New Hampshire attorney general and a prominent Republican in the state, says he’s “not a Corey fan.” Former GOP Sen. Judd Gregg took to the pages of New Hampshire’s biggest newspaper to deride Lewandowski as a “thug.”
And Dave Carney, a longtime New Hampshire-based strategist who’s worked on an array of statewide Republican campaigns, called the idea of a Lewandowski candidacy a “joke.”
“He adds nothing to the ticket and doesn’t help the president or the ticket in any way,” Carney said. “Corey is a political hack. Political hacks make bad candidates generally.”
Tensions over Lewandowski are spilling into the open, with the state GOP establishment in near open revolt over the Trump loyalist’s prospective campaign. Some are voicing concerns about his personal baggage, pointing to everything from his March 2016 physical run-in with then-Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields to his messy property dispute with a neighbor.
And with the party waging an already uphill effort to unseat two-term Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, Carney and others in the swing state worry that he would do little to help the party expand its base beyond the group of voters that Trump is already expected to attract.
Senior members of the Trump political team adamantly disagree. They argue that Lewandowski — one of the president’s staunchest and most visible defenders — would amp up conservative energy and reinvigorate the coalition of blue-collar voters that powered Trump’s decisive 2016 primary win the state.
And just as importantly, they contend the 45-year-old Lewandowski would drive attention and fundraising dollars to what has so far been regarded second-tier race — and immediately put it on the national radar.
“If Corey Lewandowski decides to run, he would significantly shake up the dynamics, attention and energy around the U.S. Senate race in the Granite State,” said Mike Biundo, a New Hampshire-based former Trump campaign aide who has known Lewandowski for nearly two decades.
Lewandowski pushed back on his mainstream Republican detractors with Trumpian flourish, saying their “rhetoric and country club, fake conservative values” has resulted in the party losing control of the state’s two Senate seats.
“It’s time to stop the so-called GOP ‘elites’ and listen to the hardworking men and woman who career politicians have failed,” added Lewandowski, who is expected attend the president’s rally.
Trump aides concede they don’t know what the famously unpredictable president will say about the Senate contest on Thursday evening.
While the White House has been made aware of concerns surrounding Lewandowski, the president has at times been willing to circumvent the wishes of party leadership when it comes to political endorsements. The president broke with party leadership when he endorsed accused child molester Roy Moore during the 2017 Alabama Senate race and when he backed immigration hard-liner Kris Kobach over a sitting incumbent in the 2018 Kansas gubernatorial contest. (Both men lost in the general election.)
Trump would profoundly alter the race if he were to wade in. Former state House Speaker Bill O’Brien has entered the Republican contest, as has Don Bolduc, a retired brigadier general. But defeating the nationally known Lewandowski would be a high hurdle — especially if he has the backing of Trump, who has near-universal support among Republicans in the state.
Republicans on both sides of the divide have launched a campaign to sway Trump ahead of the rally. In a gambit aimed at securing a presidential endorsement, David Bossie, an ally of Lewandowski’s, released a poll on Tuesday showing that he would become the front-runner if he were to run and that Trump’s support would solidify his standing.
The Bolduc campaign is racing to head off that prospect. Aides to the candidate this week presented the Trump team with their own survey results depicting Lewandowski in a dismal position. Just 15 percent of likely general election voters expressed a favorable view of the former Trump campaign manager and he trails Shaheen by double-digits in a matchup, according to the poll. The survey also presents a far more competitive primary contest, with Lewandowski and Bolduc tied at 21 percent.
Lewandowski, who served as campaign manager on former New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith’s unsuccessful 2002 reelection campaign, first declared his interest in the Senate race earlier this month. He’s reached out to an array of senior Republicans in the days since to talk about how the race could unfold.
Greg Moore, who succeeded Lewandowski as the New Hampshire director of the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, said he spoke with Lewandowski a little more than a week ago and came away with the impression that the Trump ally was leaning toward jumping in.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a done deal, but he’s certainly seems to be headed in that direction,” Moore said.
The president’s team has taken a keen interest in Lewandowski’s deliberations. After narrowly losing New Hampshire in 2016, the Trump campaign has launched an aggressive effort to win the state’s four electoral votes. Those close to the president envision Trump and Lewandowski waging a synchronized campaign focused on conservative and middle-class voters.
“I think Corey is a pretty powerful force in New Hampshire politics,” said Joshua Whitehouse, a former state representative who Lewandowski recruited onto the Trump 2016 campaign. “I couldn’t see anything but a positive effect on the whole ballot.”
But others argue that a Lewandowski bid could complicate the party’s prospects up and down the ballot — including for Sununu, who faces a potentially competitive 2020 reelection bid. As a Republican governor in a swing state, he has been forced to walk a delicate line between appealing to the president’s supporters while also demonstrating his independence.
Rath argued that Lewandowski wouldn’t necessarily improve the party’s prospects in the Senate race. He noted the state’s long history of backing independent-minded politicians and said the state isn’t looking for a senator to rubber-stamp the president.
“It just brings no value added to what we’re trying to do in New Hampshire,” said Carney, who served as a longtime top adviser to Sununu’s father, former Gov. John Sununu. “I’m sure it’s a great ego boost for his friends and allies to promote this, but it will not help the president. It will not get him a single extra vote. It makes no sense whatsoever.”
James Arkin contributed to this report.