A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.
Former President Donald Trump gave a “very mundane speech” last week in New Hampshire, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said.
Late-night ABC host Jimmy Kimmel called Trump’s return to campaigning “the political equivalent of when Michael Jordan went to play for the Wizards.”
The willingness to criticize Trump from people like Sununu could be a sign that the former president’s hold on Republicans is lessening as he hits the trail after announcing a 2024 campaign. Couple this with the rise of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in some polls and a pending announcement from former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and there is a better case.
Returning to your old office after being the most controversial and bombastic person on the political landscape is not easy. Just ask former Gov. Paul LePage.
The environment: LePage invited the myriad comparisons to Trump that would follow when he first endorsed the former president in 2016, saying he was “Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular.” Trump took over a field of flawed challengers, and the rest is history.
To be clear, Trump is still leading in national polls against potential primary opponents. Sununu, who is considering his own presidential run, got 4 percent support in his own state in a poll released last week that was led by DeSantis. Unseating the former president at the top of the Republican heap across the country is going to take one candidate consolidating Trump-skeptical support.
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Reinventing yourself: In Maine, the former governor tried to tone himself down while running against Gov. Janet Mills in 2022, with those close to him advertising a calmer “LePage 2.0” while he mapped out that campaign. Democrats rolled their eyes. LePage was more low-key, but he still got his fair share of headlines, including when he threatened to “deck” a tracker during a visit to Aroostook County. But Mills routed him in November.
Talk to anybody in Republican politics from the far-right to the center now, and virtually none of them will say LePage ran a good campaign. Even those who loved his stances say his usual fire seemed to be sapped. Conflicting electoral postmortems called for younger voices to emerge, a focus on the social issues revving up national conservatives at the moment or setting aside old figureheads and culture wars.
Open skepticism around Trump is already building. Last week, Trump attacked DeSantis from promoting vaccines and closing “beaches and everything else.” The Florida governor, who is now trying to ban vaccine mandates but did not close beaches, noted that he won another term in his state and Trump did not.
What they’re saying: “I know he’s almost 80, but he needs to remember what actually happened,” conservative pundit Erick Erickson tweeted of Trump’s DeSantis criticisms.
LePage was able to consolidate strong Republican support, from the state party to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, ahead of his 2022 race. Trump seems to be having a harder time. But the concerns ranging from a lower-energy run to divisiveness in a general election have been there for both candidates. National Republicans have plenty of time to debate these things before 2024.