New York Times
By Maggie Haberman
February 5, 2016
Political pundits and Republican leaders like to say that nobody could have foreseen the extraordinary rise of Donald J. Trump’s presidential candidacy.
But there were early signs that the electorate was ready for an insurgency like the one Mr. Trump has inspired this election. And some of the most powerful of those indicators came from New Hampshire.
In 2014, Scott Brown, a Republican and former Massachusetts senator who was running for a Senate seat in New Hampshire, aired an ad that seemed a curious fit for the state: As ominous music played in the background, and scenes of southern border crossings flashed on the screen, Mr. Brown described an “immigration crisis” sweeping the country.
“Americans go through security before they get on a plane, enter a government building or attend a ballgame,” Mr. Brown said. “But folks who come here illegally? They just walk across the border. That’s wrong.”
The advertising message from Mr. Brown seemed surprising for several reasons. It collided with national Republican leaders’ moves to temper the party’s views on immigration after the 2012 election. And it was aired in nearly all-white New Hampshire, some 2,000 miles from Mexico.
Even so, it had a powerful impact, helping Mr. Brown survive a crowded primary and make the race with the incumbent senator, Jeanne Shaheen, competitive. It also prodded Ms. Shaheen to distance herself from President Obama’s planned executive orders on immigration.
“Scott did something that the national party was actually arguing against,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a consultant for Mr. Brown in that race. “It worked for him.’’
Mr. Brown narrowly lost that contest, 51 percent to 49, but his campaign recognized something that the national party seemed for months to miss: The party’s base was deeply angry, and white working-class voters, like those in New Hampshire, felt neglected by and alienated from the political system.
“That message was ripe for Mr. Trump to come in and run with it,” said David N. Bossie, the president of the conservative group Citizens United. And, with Mr. Trump’s combination of celebrity and command of a media microphone, Mr. Bossie said, he is the perfect person to capitalize on it.
Mr. Trump has emerged as the champion of those voters who feel neglected, in large part by viscerally amplifying Mr. Brown’s message that the borders are not secure, America is not safe from terrorism, the economy is lagging and immigrants are poised to do harm to the United States. Mr. Brown, as it happens, endorsed Mr. Trump this week.
These themes, which have helped propel Mr. Trump’s ascension in the polls, might also help him regain his trajectory after a loss in Iowa. Immigration is one of the few issues where Mr. Trump is to the right of Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, and one where he can puncture Senator Marco Rubio of Florida as too moderate.
Mr. Trump’s first wave of ads framed illegal immigration as a national security concern in stark terms, and he has used this argument to shape the Republican debate for months.
“Now, they’re all trying to be tougher than me — nobody can be tougher than me,” Mr. Trump said Tuesday night at the rally in New Hampshire where Mr. Brown endorsed him.
The Brown campaign was not alone in deploying a focus on national security and immigration in the midterm races two years ago. Other Republicans sensed the growing anxieties of voters: Representative David Brat of Virginia beat Eric Cantor, the incumbent congressman and a member of the Republican leadership, in their 2014 primary race by combining worries about immigration and terrorism. And Senator Thom Tillis used a similar message in North Carolina.
Soon after Mr. Brat’s victory, attempts at a comprehensive immigration overhaul crumbled in Congress, and Mr. Obama announced plans for executive actions to halt some deportations. National Republicans became less fearful of their candidates’ talking about illegal immigration at that point, and it was a topic in several races.
Still, after the 2014 midterms in November, Republicans and business leaders believed they had found a way to placate voters’ fears and contain the insurgencies, a conclusion that turned out to be far from correct.
“Trump is hitting a message that has been building in the country for some time,” said Greg Mueller, a Republican strategist who advised the conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan when he beat President George Bush in the Republican primary in New Hampshire in 1992. Candidates positioning themselves otherwise in the primary, such as by supporting immigration reform, he added, “may as well be committing political suicide.”
In New Hampshire, concerns about immigration have long been a potent weapon. Mr. Buchanan talked about building “the Buchanan fence” along the southern tier of the country.
“Must we absorb all the people of the world into our society, and submerge our historic character as a predominantly Caucasian Western society?” said Mr. Buchanan to the columnist George Will at the time.
More recently, Gov. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, who is challenging Senator Kelly Ayotte for her seat, was among the first Democratic governors to call for a halt to Syrian refugees coming into the country after the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif.
“I’m surprised nobody picked up on it prior to him,” Michael Dunbar, a local conservative activist, said of Mr. Trump. Mr. Dunbar led the “Draft Trump” movement in 1987, when the real estate developer was promoting his book “The Art of the Deal.”
“The border has been an issue for a decade,” Mr. Dunbar said, comparing concerns about illegal border crossings to worries about a terrorist threat. “I live in a small town in Hampton, New Hampshire. I don’t worry a whole lot about terrorists. But if I got to a city, I’ve got to be aware here. I shouldn’t have to do that in my country.”
Mr. Brown was among the first to use the immigration issue in ads in Senate contests in the 2014 midterm races. He ultimately aired three spots, all of them insinuating a threat in more muted tones than Mr. Trump has used.
“Scott was careful to stress the need for compassion when addressing the immigration crisis and avoided using caustic immigration rhetoric so that he didn’t alienate independent voters who can tip the balance of New Hampshire elections,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist who worked on the Brown campaign. But by the end of the race, Mr. Brown said he was voicing “rational fears” of voters, and yoked immigration concerns to the Ebola outbreak in the fall of 2014.
For voters concerned about illegal immigration, the issue cuts against a rigid view in New Hampshire that laws are meant to be enforced.
In interviews, some of Mr. Trump’s ardent supporters have frequently mentioned immigration as a reason for supporting him, even echoing those ads from Mr. Brown.
“I’m a Polish immigrant; my parents came over from Poland in the 1930s, and my grandparents,’’ said Carol Le Lacheur, the former daughter-in-law of a local official in Lowell, Mass., just over the border from New Hampshire, who attended a rally of 7,500 people for Mr. Trump. “They taught us to work hard, to be loyal to this country.” Her family, she said, came to the country legally.
Mr. Fehrnstrom, Mr. Brown’s former consultant, called the Republican Party leaders’ redirection on immigration after the 2012 election a huge miscalculation.
“They told their candidates to support a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants as a way to increase outreach to Hispanics,’’ said Mr. Fehrnstrom, who also advised Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race. “And candidates who followed that advice are struggling. Donald Trump went in the opposite direction and he has total command of the 2016 field.”
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