Renee Plummer on the State of Republican Politics

Newsmakers’ third episode features Renee Plummer, a business owner and power broker of New Hampshire Republican politics. Politicians across the country—in Congress, state legislatures, governor’s mansions and even the White House—seek her contacts and influence. Plummer has met with, or is planning to meet with nearly every Republican presidential contender in 2016. She has been featured in Politico, the Boston Globe, and the Portsmouth Herald, and works as the vice president of marketing at Two International Group.

(In fact, I met with Plummer right as she was coming out from a question-and-answer session with Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett Packard, and presidential candidate as of last Monday).

Plummer discusses her role in the political process and the upcoming presidential elections.

Plummer on her influence

New Hampshire has a special role in American politics. As the first state in the nation to hold its primaries, just over 1.3 million New Hampshirites can give or take the legitimacy of a presidential candidate. Furthermore, New Hampshire’s small size, in terms of population and geography, makes grassroots campaigning more effective than the traditional TV and radio ads. Townhall meetings, intimate gatherings, and door-to-door campaigning is the tried-and-true path to victory.

“Just being a resident of New Hampshire I got involved in political circles—you breath it. First in the nation status makes it so easy,” Plummer said.

Success has nothing to do with money in New Hampshire, Plummer also explains. In fact, Kelly Ayotte, long-time New Hampshire Republican Senator, has an office just a few doors down. She and Plummer became close colleagues, and they still bump into each other.

Plummer introduces candidates to the people that propel a grassroots campaign—activists, columnists, and interest groups. Providing an unbiased forum for candidates to gain the support of these “influence peddlers,” Plummer is recognized as one of the biggest power brokers in the state. Before deciding who to support, candidates hope Plummer will hear their pitch.“I try not to influence until I have made up my mind on the right candidate for the country.”

When Plummer finally settles on a candidate, she mobilizes her army of contacts in their favor. Former presidential candidate Jon Huntsman was one of the fortunate few. His campaign called to set up a meeting—an expectation of any candidate coming through New Hampshire—and at first, Plummer was hesitant. They agreed to meet over luch at Jumpin Jay’s Fish Market.

“I thought ‘I am going to ask this man whatever I want,’” Plummer said. “And he responded by looking me straight in the eyes and answering every question. I think we were there for two hours. When everyone was getting up or going to the bathroom, I just looked at my husband and said, my goodness. And as we walked out, I just told him, ‘we are with you.’ You love a candidate that just says, ‘ask me everything.’”

Huntsman’s poise and authenticity, combined with his pragmatic conservatism, made him the ideal candidate for Plummer to support. He campaigned to the right of his party on fiscal policy—arguing that the federal government ought to cut spending on entitlements to reduce the deficit—but toward the center on other issues. Huntsman presented a unique mix of strong principals, diverse experience, and establishment pragmatism.

Plummer liked this. She and Huntsman prioritized fiscal prudence, but believed the Republican Party should be willing to moderate its positions, particularly on social issues, to achieve its other priorities. In fact, even though Huntsman’s official positions on gay marriage and abortion were well to the left of Plummer’s stance, they still agreed on this approach.

“Governor Huntsman said to me, ‘We might not agree on 100 percent of the issues, but if we can agree on 80%, we’ll do okay,’” Plummer said. “We all have to move forward because there are people in the world that want to kill us—that don’t like us. We better overcome our egos and think of ourselves as a nation again.”

What sealed the deal for Plummer, though, was Huntsman’s ability to run a grassroots campaign. Pizza joints, backyard barbeques, and town hall meetings were second nature to him; he had the ability to forge a special connection with attention-spoiled New Hampshire voters. In the end, Huntsman finished a solid third in the New Hampshire primary, losing to eventual nominee Mitt Romney.

Very rarely, however, does a candidate move Plummer as Huntsman did. More regularly, no candidate persuades Plummer that he or she will further the “public good.” Until that point, she simply listens—and often she doesn’t back anybody.

Plummer on the Tea Party, and GOP Outreach

On January 22, 2017, the United States of America will inaugurate its 45th president. Though, the upcoming race really began years ago. In the so-called invisible primary, candidates solicit donors, organize staff, and draft their campaign’s platform. A poor performance—and, well, the writing is on the tombstone.

Heading into the primaries, politicos have raised a number of questions about the future of the Republican Party. Hispanics, who overwhelming voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, are becoming a larger percentage of population, while whites, traditionally the GOP’s strongest bloc, are becoming a less influential. Demographics trends, in general, appear much kinder to those on the left.

“I was so tired of people telling me the GOP lacks support among minority voters,” Plummer said, as she pointed to a newspaper article on her desk. “Eddy Edwards, black guy from Georgia. You ask him why he is a Republican and he will tell you about his grandmother in Georgia, saying ‘you do this yourself, nobody needs to help you.” Plummer pointed out four other Republicans, who, like Edwards, are racial minorities from humble beginnings. “This is the face of the Republican Party of New Hampshire,” she said. “The problem is the media— they do not allow minorities to come out and say what they really believe.”

Many other conservatives agree that that the GOP’s lagging support is the result of poor messaging. The party’s core policies, they say, are sound—they can appeal to, and actually work minority voters if they are presented better. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, in the wake of Romney’s 2012 loss, spearheaded these “rebranding and outreach” efforts.

Others— mostly those on the ends of the ideological spectrum— take a different position. Moderates have made the case for changing “substance” of policies, rather than just messaging. Tea Partiers have pushed the GOP to move its policies farther to the right, arguing that “strong principles” will defeat the notorious Washington establishment.

In fact, the Tea Party has a reputation not just for ultra-conservative policy, but also for taking uncompromising stands on its beliefs. The establishment, mainstream and moderate conservatives, have clashed with the Tea Party on numerous occasions. For instance, Ted Cruz, a Tea Party member and presidential candidate, fought a ruthless battle against Washington over a bill to raise the debt ceiling.

Analysts have noted that the growing rift between the establishment and the far right endangers the party’s ability to govern. With 22 contenders across the political spectrum, the primaries could damage the eventual nominee so much that he or she is unable overcome it the general.

“Someone like Ted Cruz is not bad for the party,” Plummer said. He makes people stand on their toes and pay attention. But, at the same time, we have to think pragmatically about how to move the nation forward.”

Democrats, too, face a division in their party. Progressives, lead by Elizabeth Warren, fight centrist-leaning economic policies of their Party’s “establishment.” However, the lack of viable competition in the primaries has somewhat camouflaged this spat. Hillary Clinton’s juggernaut, despite complaints from the progressive wing, is virtually unchallenged from the left.

The views of Progressive Democrats and the Tea Party Republicans, while on opposite ends of the spectrum, happen to overlap in several places. Disdain for the establishment’s “backroom deal-making” is the most prominent. And, at various times, both have taken similar populist stances on trade, banking reform, and executive authority.

Plummer describes her first-hand experience with this dynamic. “Scott Brown (a former GOP senator) did his last big push on one of our harbor docks, two days before the election. Outside, right at the gate, were liberals, and the right-wing conservatives screaming against Scott,” Plummer said. “And I thought to myself the two wrong (viewpoints) have now become one against Scott Brown.”

On the Republican side, the major candidates appear to be Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio. Jeb Bush, using his family connections, claimed the mantle of establishment favorite early on. To Bush’s right, Scott Walker has his foot in the establishment, Tea Party and evangelical camps. His campaign will sink or swim depending on his ability to unites these groups.  Marco Rubio, a hispanic with solid conservative credentials, is building his campaign on the promise of the American Dream.

Other notable contenders—Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and Carly Fiorina are unlikely to take home the gold, but will certainly influence the debate. That said, a win in New Hampshire could propel any one of these contenders to the top of the pack.

“The barometer is going to be young people. Watch social media and watch college campuses,” Plummer said, leaning closer to her desk. “But really, there is no way of predicting who will win New Hampshire. You dont know what goes through a candidate’s mind, cause you have people like me who are asking questions.”

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