CONCORD, NEW HAMPSHIRE – The current and former chiefs of the state Republican Party condemned him. New Hampshire’s only two Republican members of Congress refused to endorse him. The conservative owner of the state’s largest newspaper called him “a con man” on the front page.
Donald Trump won anyway — big time.
So, too, did Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who will leave New Hampshire with the commanding victory one might expect of a front-runner blessed with the near universal favor of his party. Except all that establishment support belongs to Hillary Clinton.
Trump’s victory and the self-described democratic socialist’s win — both by margins of about 20 percentage points —are reminders of the limits of party power in an age of anger toward Washington and frustration with politics.
Many Republican Party leaders may be terrified by Trump’s ascendance, but have yet to divine a way to stop the billionaire real estate mogul. Clinton may have all the endorsements of her party’s top names, but it is Sanders who is winning over the young people and independents who helped push Barack Obama to the White House.
On Tuesday, establishment-minded Republicans from New Hampshire expressed a mix of frustration and shame that it was their state that delivered Trump’s first victory. “I refuse to support him under any circumstance,” said Fergus Cullen, a former New Hampshire Republican Party chairman. “Trump would be a disaster.”
Cullen likened Trump to Pat Buchannan in 1996, the divisive former Nixon aide and conservative commentator who also won the New Hampshire primary. Republican leaders quickly coalesced behind mainstream alternative Bob Dole, the former Republican Senate leader who went on win the nomination only to lose to President Bill Clinton.
It wasn’t because they loved Dole, Cullen said, but because they feared Buchannan would embarrass the Republican Party.
“The party was able to stop Buchannan 20 years ago,” Cullen said. “Today, they’re incapable of doing it.”
For those like Cullen who oppose Trump, it only gets worse.
Marco Rubio’s underwhelming performance in New Hampshire eliminates the prospect the Florida senator might emerge as the Republican establishment’s favored alternative as the race heads into South Carolina and more than a dozen states on March 1, known as Super Tuesday.
Competing for the support of the same group of Republicans, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Rubio won enough votes combined to handily beat Trump. But as they fought among themselves — four political insiders against the lone outsider — Trump won with ease.
John Jordan, a California winery owner who runs an outside group backing Rubio, said that “candidate logjam is all going to break in one night,” and suggested that night will be March 15, when Florida is among the states to hold their presidential primaries.
“One of them will do better than the other, and it will be impossible for the relative loser to make the case to donors that he should continue,” he said, referring to the state’s native sons, Bush and Rubio. “Donors will simply move to whoever wins that state, and it will happen nearly instantly.”
But between now and March 15 is South Carolina, Nevada and the Super Tuesday contests — time that Trump, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the uncompromising conservative who won the leadoff Iowa caucuses, can use to further their edge. Despite questions about the strength of his ground game, Trump continues to hold a commanding lead in many preference polls in the South’s first primary in South Carolina — and he could get a bump from his New Hampshire success.
Sanders may, too, but he has much further to climb as Democratic race moves ahead.
South Carolina and Nevada are more racially diverse states than Iowa and New Hampshire, which should play to Clinton’s long-standing strength with minority voters. And unlike Republicans, Democrats give hundreds of party insiders a vote at the national convention to cast as they choose. Among those so-called superdelegates, Clinton already has a commanding 352-delegate edge in the race for the 2,382 needed to win the nomination.
“This is not a two-round boxing match, it’s a 12-round boxing match,” said Bob Mulholland, a longtime California Democratic strategist. “And I want to remind everybody the last three presidents came second in New Hampshire — Clinton, Bush and Obama.”
When Trump gets to South Carolina on Wednesday, he isn’t likely to find any Republican leaders in the Palmetto State who are eager to embrace his campaign.
The state’s senior Republican senator, Lindsey Graham, has said that choosing between Trump and Cruz is like choosing between being “shot or poisoned.” South Carolina Republican Chairman Matt Moore lashed out at Trump’s plan to temporarily ban Muslims from the U.S. as un-American and unconstitutional.
And South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called on Republicans to resist the temptation to follow “the siren call of the angriest voices,” referring to Trump.
Yet even before the New Hampshire results were final, Moore declined to condemn Trump when given the opportunity — a clear attempt not to alienate his supporters.
“Trump is holding rallies and drawing crowds like we’ve never seen, which is really impressive,” Moore said. “Clearly he’s brought a lot of new people into the fold. We’ll need those people to defeat Hillary Clinton.”