Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is facing a test of his hard-right political brand in New Hampshire, one that requires him to strike a more moderate tone on some of the cultural issues that have come to define his rise to prominence.
Since launching his presidential bid last week, DeSantis has leaned into his credentials as a conservative culture warrior, hoping to outflank his chief rival, former President Donald Trump, from the right.
But that strategy carries significant risks in New Hampshire, where libertarian-leaning Republicans and a sizable cohort of independent voters play an outsized role in determining the winner of the critical first-in-the-nation GOP primary.
“Culturally, we’re less conservative, so there’s definitely a difference there,” said Jim Merrill, a veteran Republican consultant in New Hampshire. “We have more of a fiscally conservative, more socially moderate general electorate. The pro-life community here isn’t as big as it is in Iowa.”
“Candidates here really need to think through their strategy,” he added. “Not only appealing to base Republican activists, but also that undeclared vote and what may draw them in.”
As he swung through the state Thursday in his first tour as a presidential candidate, there were signs that DeSantis was aware of his audience.
He still discussed fixtures of his typical stump speech, railing against “woke indoctrination” and touting his feud with Disney and his work on universal school choice. And he praised New Hampshire for “holding the line” in deep-blue New England, noting that, like Florida, the Granite State doesn’t collect a personal income tax.
Yet not once did he mention the six-week abortion ban that he signed into law in April, avoiding an issue that he highlighted repeatedly while he toured culturally conservative Iowa earlier in the week.
“This tends to be a state where issues like abortion energize Democrats and divide Republicans,” said Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. “I heard DeSantis speak for about an hour, and he didn’t mention abortion once.”
Multiple Republicans said DeSantis is starting his campaign in New Hampshire in a strong position. While polls show him running well behind Trump in the state, he’s already amassed the support of dozens of New Hampshire legislators, including a few who previously backed Trump for the 2024 nomination.
On Thursday, New Hampshire state Rep. James Spillane announced that he would be flipping his endorsement from Trump to DeSantis, arguing that the former president’s recent attack on his former press secretary Kayleigh McEnany had shown that Trump had not learned any “measure of control” since leaving the White House.
DeSantis’s swing through New Hampshire also earned some praise from the state’s Republican governor, Chris Sununu, who is weighing a 2024 bid of his own. In an appearance on Fox News, Sununu said that DeSantis had demonstrated that he’s about more than “the woke stuff.”
“He talked about fiscal discipline,” Sununu said. “He’s talking about doing things in Washington that folks haven’t gotten done, and whether that’s Ron or all the candidates, that’s what we have to be talking about.”
New Hampshire holds a unique role in the early presidential primary calendar. Unlike Iowa or South Carolina, religious conservatives tend to hold less sway. Republicans tend to home in on fiscal issues, and independent voters are seen as a critical bloc in the primaries.
The state also has a better recent track record of determining the GOP’s White House nod than Iowa. In the last three Republican nominating contests in which an incumbent president wasn’t on the ballot, the winner of the New Hampshire primary ultimately emerged as the eventual nominee.
“This is a pro-choice state and that goes right down through both parties,” said Tom Rath, a longtime GOP consultant and former New Hampshire attorney general. “Now, there is clearly a pro-life segment of the Republican vote, but that’s offset by the impact of independents.”
It’s not as if abortion restrictions are the central theme of DeSantis’s presidential campaign. While he backed the six-week ban in his home state, he’s so far avoided getting behind calls for the kind of federal ban that has been championed by anti-abortion rights groups.
Trump has also skirted the issue of a federal abortion ban, suggesting that such decisions should be left up to individual states. DeSantis criticized Trump last month, however, after the former president insinuated that Florida’s six-week prohibition is “too harsh.”
Other candidates, including former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), have signaled support for some kind of federal abortion ban.
Yet there are other areas that DeSantis may have to approach with caution. Rath noted that many New Hampshire Republicans lean toward a version of small-government conservatism that, in some ways, stands in contrast to DeSantis’s reputation as a muscular executive.
That image was on full display in Iowa this week, when DeSantis kicked off his 2024 campaign with a vow to “impose our will on Washington, D.C.”
“One thing that New Hampshire likes is accountability,” Rath, who’s unaligned in the primary, said. “We have a two-year term for governor. We don’t like people to get too comfortable. They take these things seriously; it’s part of our ethos. And accordingly, they’ve tended to take a good hard look at the people who are respectful of that.”
Scala, the political science professor, believes that that attitude may be changing among New Hampshire Republicans, especially in the years since Trump entered the political scene, portraying himself as a candidate capable of muscling through even the most difficult priorities.
“There’s definitely a contrast between the small-government conservatism of someone like Chris Sununu with DeSantis’s more big-government conservatism,” Scala said.
Still, he added: “I think there’s this feeling among Republicans right now that we need a strong executive at the national level to clean things up, because things are such a mess.”