PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Republicans running in major elections throughout New England have been doing all they can to keep their distance from Donald Trump, their party’s controversial presidential nominee. Except one.
Representative Frank Guinta of New Hampshire stands out not just for his full-throated endorsement of Trump but also because he is increasingly using his alliance with Trump in an attempt to save his political career.
A few months ago, Guinta was politically left for dead. The Federal Election Commission found he had accepted $355,000 in illegal contributions from his parents — after denying wrongdoing in three previous elections — and reaction was swift.
The New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper published an editorial with Guinta’s picture and the words “damned liar.” The chairwoman of the New Hampshire Republican Party urged him to resign, as did Senator Kelly Ayotte and the Republican leadership at the State House. The University of New Hampshire Survey Center conducted a poll in April with particularly grim results: Just 6 percent of Republicans in his First Congressional District said they would definitely vote for him for reelection.
A month later, Guinta endorsed Trump and began to plot his comeback, in a state whose voters gave Trump his first big win in the Republican primaries. Now, in the weeks before Tuesday’s primary, interviews with many Republicans in the district have yielded an optimistic prognosis for Guinta to win the nomination — thanks in part to backing from the bevy of steadfast Trump supporters.
Guinta called Trump “different and refreshing,” and praised him for bringing newcomers into the Republican Party. Last month, Guinta was the only major Republican in the state to attend a rally in Manchester for Trump, who most polls show is behind in New Hampshire by between 5 and 15 points.
“In what is expected to be a low-turnout Republican primary, Guinta has been smart to appeal to Trump’s voters in the political base,” University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala said.
Guinta has criticized his main Republican primary opponent, businessman Rich Ashooh, for not fully embracing Trump.
“We need a Republican president who is going to lead on these issues, and my opponent refuses to support Donald Trump or refuses to endorse Donald Trump,” Guinta said in a recent televised debate. “I don’t understand that. He has said that he is about himself and his own election. I am about the team. I am about making sure that we have good public policy initiatives at the local, state, and the federal level and I think that Donald Trump is going to focus on these areas.”
Ashooh has said he is not endorsing Trump but will vote for him.
“In a choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, that choice is very clear: I will support Donald Trump,” Ashooh said at the same debate, broadcast on NH1. “Having said that, he and I disagree on many things, both in tone and temperament and in substance.”
Guinta’s stance is in sharp contrast to those of many other Republicans in the region. Ayotte, like Ashooh, has said she would support but not endorse Trump — even after he endorsed her. Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Senator Susan Collins of Maine both have said they won’t vote for Trump.
In the hotly contested race in Maine’s Second Congressional District, Republican freshman incumbent Bruce Poliquin refuses to answer questions about Trump at all. (Governor Paul LePage of Maine, the most forceful defender of Trump in the area, is not up for reelection this year.)
All four of New Hampshire’s Republican candidates for governor have said they support Trump, but none have appeared at a Trump rally in recent months.
In an interview, Guinta suggested that beyond being just a Republican “team player,” he was using his embrace of Trump to come across as antiestablishment despite being a sitting member of Congress.
“I think that most people at this point view me as an antiestablishment candidate, and I think that people see me as the guy who is fighting that establishment zone,” Guinta said. “I am the guy who will buck the establishment and leadership when necessary, and I think that people like that. I think people are drawn to that, and I think it is also in part why Donald Trump won the nomination.”
After a recent campaign visit to a business in Portsmouth, Ashooh noted that Trump’s candidacy is not something that voters really ask him about.
“They want to know what I am going to do to make their lives better and solve their problems,” Ashooh said in an interview.
As for how he feels about Trump, Ashooh said, “We’re very different people. He’s making his case, and I need to make my case.”
In at least one policy area, Trump’s influence is making itself felt. Guinta has embraced Trump’s opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
Ashooh is strongly for free trade and for much of his career worked as a lobbyist for the Britain-based defense manufacturer BAE, which has a large facility in Nashua.
To be sure, if Guinta succeeds in the primary, it won’t all be because of Trump. Guinta is a talented campaigner. And Ashooh has struggled to gain name recognition and convince voters he is the clear alternative for those who don’t believe Guinta was being truthful about his campaign finance issues in the past.
While public polling on the Republican primary has been scant, many activists believe that Guinta will probably prevail in the primary.
“The way that Guinta has slowly fought back is very impressive,” said Brian Murphy, the Rockingham County Republican Party chairman, who is neutral in the race. “Guinta knows who these primary voters are, and he has been working his butt off to earn their support, if not their trust, back.”
If he wins Tuesday, Guinta will face a much greater challenge in November’s election against former representative Carol Shea-Porter — a contest in which Guinta’s alliance with Trump will be much less beneficial.