By John King, CNN Chief National Correspondent
Portsmouth, NH (CNN) — First mate Andrew Konchek uses a dockside crane to lower the last giant chest of ice onto the stern of the Alanna Renee. Moments later, the fishing boat eases off the dock and heads out of Portsmouth Harbor in the moonlight.
This is a two-day trip, and a storm is coming. Konchek often spends 80 hours a week on the water, sometimes more. It is grueling work – and it shapes his politics.
“I’m a Republican,” the 38-year-old commercial fisherman said last week. “You know, they are for the working man. … I believe Republicans stand for us. So yeah, when it comes to gas prices and everything else, the economy feels better run by Republicans.”
In 2016, Donald Trump captured Konchek’s attention, and he was among those who helped the first-time candidate to his game-changing initial win in the New Hampshire primary. Now, Trump again tops Konchek’s list as he looks over another crowded Republican field.
“Donald Trump as of right now but I’m going to keep it open so I can make an educated decision,” Konchek said. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is his second choice.
“You know [Trump] does a bunch of negative things and a lot of things I don’t agree with,” Konchek said. “But as a businessman he can run the country as a business that way.”
Konchek is among a group of New Hampshire residents CNN contacted as part of a 2024 reporting project aimed at tracking the presidential campaign through the eyes – and the life experiences – of voters who live in key battlegrounds or are members of critical voting blocs.
New Hampshire’s 2024 primary will be a crucial early test of Trump’s comeback bid. The state also could be a general election battleground. New Hampshire and national Democrats are still at odds over scheduling the presidential primary, and the state could forfeit some convention delegates if it ignores the Democratic National Committees rules. Still, the Democratic primary, whenever it is held, would be a test of President Joe Biden at a time even many Democrats say they would prefer a younger candidate.
A common complaint from the fishermen CNN spoke to is that they are left out of the state and national post-pandemic recovery and get double hit by inflation because it increases the cost of fuel, bait and other things they must buy for work in addition to thumping them, like everyone else, at the grocery store or the gas pump.
The commercial fishing industry, which has a 400-year history in Portsmouth, is struggling. Workers like Konchek say they feel ignored and disrespected by the regulators who write the rules and set the fishing quotas and by politicians who believe one piece of moving to a cleaner energy infrastructure is to dot the seacoast here with wind turbines.
“That’s going to completely destroy our fishing industry,” Konchek said. He believes digging trenches for construction and cables to bring power on shore will damage already fragile habitats.
Konchek makes clear he sees the climate crisis and understands it could require sacrifice for commercial fishermen.
A handful of fishermen CNN chatted with at the docks in Portsmouth or the Rye Harbor a few miles down the road said similar things. The water is warmer. The storms are more severe. The fish are different. They understand the need for quotas and regulations but say their input is almost always ignored.
“Definitely harder,” Konchek said when asked about making a living now compared to five or 10 years ago. The Alanna Renee is a gillnetting boat – designed to get a large catch by draping nets in the water. Konchek also owns a 22-foot boat and in past years has dropped lobster traps to supplement his income. But he skipped that this year.
“Fuel prices are a lot higher,” he said. “The bait price is higher, and the price of lobster stayed the same.”
Konchek believes things would be better with a Republican as president because they generally favor lower regulation. Plus, Trump is a fierce critic of the wind energy farms.
Friend and fellow fisherman Lucas Raymond once agreed. He, too, helped Trump to his 2016 primary win here in New Hampshire – and supported him against Hillary Clinton that November.
But the chaos and coarseness of Trump turned him off, and he voted third party in 2020.
This cycle, Raymond is drawn to a new insurgent – so much so he is poised to support a Democrat for president for the first time.
“I am extremely likely to vote for Robert Kennedy,” Raymond told us in Rye, where his fishing boat is moored in the harbor.
Raymond cites Kennedy’s years of work as an environmental lawyer, including helping fishermen hurt by industrial pollution.
“I also believe there’s a little more honesty to him than our average politician,” Raymond said. “He is willing to say that we should not blindly trust corporations or our government.”
Raymond said he was first drawn to Kennedy after a crewmate shared an interview on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. He says other Republican leaning fisherman also are considering backing Kennedy.
Raymond is registered as undeclared – an Independent – and New Hampshire allows such voters to cast ballots in either the Democratic or Republican primary. Raymond has already moved on from Trump, so his decision alone wouldn’t make much of a difference. But if he is correct about other former GOP voters crossing over and voting for Kennedy – a Democrat – it could be a dynamic worth tracking.
“I’ve come to this place of distrust out of watching the regulations do the exact opposite of what they claim to do,” Raymond said. “I felt stuck in, I still feel stuck in the two-party system.”
Stanley Tremblay represents another piece of the New Hampshire political math test.
Like Raymond, he is listed on the voting rolls as undeclared. Like Raymond, he is disgusted with national politics.
“There are so many politicians that have been in power for so long,” Tremblay told us at his Nashua brewpub, Liquid Therapy. “The same stagnant pool continues to exist.”
Tremblay’s father was a Vietnam veteran and some of his military patches hang on the brewery walls. It is in a former fire station, and patches and other memorabilia left by firefighters also dot the walls. Tremblay says service and patriotism run deep in him, but he can’t stomach the tone of national politics anymore and voted third party for president in 2016 and 2020.
“What if you get Biden-Trump again?” CNN asked.
“Probably not vote,” Tremblay said.
Tremblay leans Republican but is no fan of Trump. So, you could argue not participating in the Republican primary helps the former president.
Pete Burdett’s change of heart, on the other hand, hurts Trump.
Burdett is a 21-year Navy veteran. The former helicopter pilot and flight instructor met Trump at a veteran’s event in 2016 and was won over. “He’s a pretty smart guy,” Burdett said of the Trump he met at that event. “We had this great discussion.”
But Burdett said 2024 Trump is a far cry from 2016 Trump.
“He talks about himself,” Burdett says. “He’s not focusing on the issues going forward. He seems to be focusing on the issues of the past. I’m done with the past.”
A Nikki Haley sign stands at the end of Burdett’s driveway.
“She hit all my hot buttons,” Burdett said. “She’s got the international chops with her time at the UN to really kind of understand the whole global idea of what is going on in the world. You got to have that. And she also has a husband who is currently deployed, so she gets that.”
Burdett says he would support Trump if he were the Republican nominee next November but hopes the state that helped launch Trump in 2016 turns to someone new for 2024.
New Hampshire’s primary date has not been set but will be early next year, most likely in January. But as summer prepares to give way to fall, signs of Trump’s advantage here are easy to come by.
“It’s definitely very much pro-Donald Trump,” Natalya Orlando from Londonderry said.
She was a Rand Paul supporter back in 2016 but voted for Trump in both the 2016 and 2020 general elections and is “pretty much” locked in for Trump in the 2024 primary. “From what I see here on grassroots, on the ground, it’s very much pro Donald Trump.”
Still, Orlando adds a caveat worth keeping an eye on.
“I personally don’t think he is as strong as he was in 2015. I have people argue with me about that and tell me I am wrong and get mad that I am saying this, but I am going to be honest. … I just don’t see the same enthusiasm that I did in 2016 behind him. … I just don’t see it day in, day out, like I did. I’m hoping I’m wrong,” she said.
Orlando loved when Trump dominated the political conversation with provocative and controversial tweets and sees him as more cautious in the 2024 campaign: “I wish Donald Trump would go back to being Donald Trump.”
Konchek also sees “less now” when asked to compare enthusiasm for Trump compared to the 2016 primary. “All the legal cases,” he says. “Yeah, it did impact him around here.”
Still, Trump remains his faraway first choice for now. Konchek expects to be on the water for the second GOP debate next week and hopes he can catch it on satellite TV. Sometimes, during a work lull, he does check the news.
“I’ll turn on Fox and CNN. … I flip and I watch the football games,” Konchek said. “I watch the weather to tell you the truth. It’s my job – pay attention to the weather.”
CNN’s conversations with voters are anecdotal reporting. But what New Hampshire voters said last week tracks closely with a new survey released by CNN on Wednesdaay.
The CNN/University of New Hampshire poll found Trump with a comfortable lead – winning support from 39% of voters who said they were planning to vote in the GOP primary next year. Vivek Ramaswamy was a distant second at 12%. Other candidates with double-digit support were Haley at 12 %, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at 11% and DeSantis at 10 %.
Trump runs strongest in the poll among voters registered as Republicans, while the race is far more competitive among undeclared voters who plan to participate in the GOP primary. But the opposition to Trump is split across the crowded field – the very dynamic that helped him to his New Hampshire win in 2016.
The numbers reinforce two big questions from CNN’s voter conversations.
First, do Trump supporters like Konchek and Orlando stay put? Both said they were strong for Trump but listed DeSantis as a second choice.
And second, does the anti-Trump vote consolidate in any significant way? Burdett, for example, said he hoped to win over fellow veterans to Haley as the primary draws closer. But he acknowledged it’s a tall order.
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