John Pelletier of Van Buren loved former President Donald Trump’s policies and was once a strong supporter. He isn’t excited for his 2024 bid.
“I just don’t like his revenge politics,” said the 75-year-old former nursing home administrator.
A day after Donald Trump announced a third run for president, Pelletier and others from the Maine Republican grassroots said they were probing other options in the aftermath of a historically poor 2022 midterm election that many pinned on Trump, while more prominent Republicans stayed quiet on the former president’s new campaign.
While other names are being thrown around, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is the clear non-Trump frontrunner both in Maine conservative circles and national polling. He was handily reelected last week and has gained national momentum for imposing conservative policies in the Sunshine State, especially opposition to COVID-19 restrictions.
Trump had a healthy base in Maine, winning the 2nd Congressional District and its one electoral vote in 2016 and 2020. While Maine will have its say during the 2024 primaries, Trump’s ability to rejuvenate support here may be a harbinger of how his new bid will fare nationally.
He still looks hard to beat on the Republican side. In a national Politico-Morning Consult poll conducted in the aftermath of the 2022 election but before Trump announced, he was still beating DeSantis by 14 percentage points, though Trump’s support has dropped significantly compared with other polls held before last week’s election.
Many of Maine’s top Republicans may not have thought they would be having the 2024 conversation so soon. Several did not respond to requests for comment about Trump’s new bid, including U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and former Gov. Paul LePage.
Incoming Senate Minority Leader Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, said he was expecting a “great primary season” for the Republicans. He said there were several other candidates in the new generation of GOP leaders that he was looking forward to seeing on the campaign trail.
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“I will offer my support for the candidate who is conservative and can win on Election Day,” Stewart said.
Incoming Maine House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham of Winter Harbor said it was too long before 2024 for him to support a particular candidate. He thought that Trump’s announcement was “really early and premature.”
The GOP needs to examine why it had such a historically poor performance in last week’s midterms before deciding on a standard-bearer, he said, though he is excited about the potential candidacies of DeSantis, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul.
“When you’re getting into [ideology] and who can win, those are two different things,” Faulkingham said. “I guess I’d have to see who they all are.”
One thing that is clear is that support for Trump is higher among those in the grassroots than elected officials, an ever-present divide that has been accentuated since he left the presidency. In Republican-leaning communities like Lisbon, many still present Trump signs and flags on their homes and bumpers. In some cases, the “2020” part is crossed out and “2024” written in.
Even as Trump levels attacks and derogatory nicknames on DeSantis, most GOP voters admire both, including Phyllis Ring, 83, of Lisbon, who has donated to both Trump and DeSantis.
“I can’t fully make my mind up,” said Ring, who noted that any voting was more than a year away.
Those who want others as the nominee latched onto an electoral argument. After two impeachments, legal problems, including an investigation for violation of the Espionage Act, and revelations about his activities during the Capitol riots of Jan. 6, 2021, many worry about Trump’s liabilities.
“I think it’s time for new blood,” Pelletier said.
Former state Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, said she would vote for DeSantis over Trump in a primary, but she also feels that there are other capable candidates who could “easily beat” President Joe Biden, including South Carolina U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
Along with his strong conservative track record, DeSantis had a strong demeanor, Volk said. She especially admired how he could “handle” the press without alienating them completely. While DeSantis has had a frosty relationship with the Florida press, he hasn’t been as overt as Trump, who endlessly lashed out at the media as “fake news.”
Laura Parker, 40, of Sidney, a delegate at the Republican National Convention in 2016, said she was devastated Trump lost his reelection. But DeSantis has a proven track record she calls “a shining example of what the United States should be.” She sees him and others as stronger in a general election than Trump.
“I think he does have, perhaps, a broader appeal,” Parker said. “He certainly hasn’t been crucified on the national stage by … mainstream liberal media.”
Rep. Gregory Swallow, R-Houlton, represents a southern Aroostook County district where Trump had some of the strongest support in the state in 2020. He believes that Trump still has a lot of support in Maine, but is waiting to see who else announces before throwing his lot in.
Swallow had particular praise for DeSantis, but he said there were other Republicans who would make great candidates, including Paul, the Kentucky senator, and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, both of whom ran in 2016. Just who should take the mantle is a discussion already happening in his district and it is bound to continue, he predicted.
“Any time Trump’s involved, there will be a lot of conversation,” Swallow said.