The Race For N.H.'s 1st Congressional District Is A National Bellwether — And A Challenge For Republicans

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Incumbent U.S. Rep Chris Pappas, D-NH, left, and Republican challenger Matt Mowers, right, candidates in New Hampshire's 1st Congressional District general election. (AP Photos, File)
Incumbent U.S. Rep Chris Pappas, D-NH, left, and Republican challenger Matt Mowers, right, candidates in New Hampshire's 1st Congressional District general election. (AP Photos, File)

New Hampshire's 1st Congressional District, which covers the eastern end of the state, can't make up its mind about whether to send a Republican or a Democrat to Washington.

Between 2008 and 2016 — five election cycles in a row — it rocked back and forth: electing a Democrat to Congress, then a Republican, then a Democrat, then a Republican, and then a Democrat.

"This district is one of the swingiest districts in the country," said Terie Norelli, a Democrat and the former speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives.

Norelli is backing Democrat Chris Pappas, who is trying to become the first incumbent in 12 years to win back-to-back races in the district. The Congressman appeared recently at a women's health center near Portsmouth as Republicans in Washington push to put another conservative justice — Amy Coney Barrett — on the Supreme Court. Pappas said the rightward swing of the high court means that abortion rights are at stake on Nov. 3; as is the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which the Trump Administration wants the high court to overturn.

"This is hanging by a thread," Pappas said. "We're talking about health care for tens of millions of Americans; hundreds of thousands [of people] here in New Hampshire who enjoy patient protections from the ACA. I think it's a political attempt that only seeks [to take] away access to health care. And we shouldn't stand for it."

Two years ago, the focus on health care helped Democrats, including Pappas, ride a blue wave into Congress and flip control of the House. Now, in the midst of a pandemic, it remains a potent issue for Democrats. And with Election Day less than a month away, the race for this congressional district illustrates the challenge facing Republicans — and President Donald Trump.

Pappas' opponent is Matt Mowers, who worked in the Trump Administration and has been endorsed by the president. In a district with lots of unenrolled and moderate voters, Mowers is trying to make a case that Pappas is a Washington politician who marches in lock-step with Nancy Pelosi.

"His first vote was to support Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House," Mowers said. "He's voted with her 100% of the time since then. Not only that, he's forgotten New Hampshire."

Mowers claims that Pappas wants to raise taxes, a charge that Pappas denies, though he does favor reversing the Trump tax cuts that mostly benefit the very wealthy. But in a state that prides itself on no income tax, Mowers argues that Pappas is out of step with "the New Hampshire way," a case he tried to press in a debate last week on NHPR.

"We know the New Hampshire way is to keep taxes low, but you and Nancy Pelosi are trying to raise them," Mowers said to Pappas.

Pappas pushed back, arguing that he does not support raising taxes on working people, especially during a pandemic.

"And I don't need a lecture on New Hampshire values from someone who just moved here to launch a political career," he said sharply.

Pappas has deep family roots in the Granite State, while Mowers was born in New Jersey and moved to New Hampshire just a few years ago. But his message that Pappas is too beholden to Pelosi appeals to New Hampshire conservatives like Sharleene Hurst, a Republican who's running for a seat in the state Legislature.

"[Pappas] is too tied to his party's leadership, and to me, that is wrong," Hurst said. "You have to put your constituents first. And when your votes are just like every other vote in your party, you're not thinking for yourself — and that is wrong."

But if Pappas is too close to Pelosi, Mowers is too close to the man who endorsed him — President Trump, according to Norelli, who said Mowers is part of a slate of New Hampshire Republicans eager to do Trump's bidding.

"They may do it with a friendlier face, or they may do it with a calmer voice — but don't be deceived — they are pushing the same policies that Donald Trump is pushing," Norelli said.

For his part, Mowers is trying to keep his campaign focused on taxes, spending, and the economy, while distancing himself from an increasingly unpopular president.

"At the end of the day, this race is between myself and Congressman Pappas," he said. "I don't give a damn what my party leadership wants. I don't give a damn about anything else other than what's in the best interest in New Hampshire's middle class families. That's what matters right now and that's what's going to matter on November 3rd."

But Mowers faces an uphill battle, according to a recent poll from UNH, which suggests that Pappas is ahead in the race, and that Mowers remains relatively unknown in the state.

"The problem for all Republicans in New Hampshire is Donald Trump is not popular in the state," said Andy Smith, director of the UNH polling center. "[Trump is] losing in our most recent polls by about 10% to Joe Biden."

So, it's no surprise that the incumbent, Chris Pappas, is eager to link Mowers to the president.

"Fundamental decency is on the ballot," Pappas said. "My opponent, just like the president, is running a campaign of fear and smear."

Although considered a swing state, New Hampshire has been trending increasingly Democratic. And in recent election cycles, the state's 1st Congressional District has done a good job picking presidential winners. It supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and in 2016, it supported Donald Trump over Hilary Clinton by a whisker. Now, as the district appears to favor Pappas for Congress, it is also leaning toward Joe Biden for President.

This segment aired on October 13, 2020.


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Anthony Brooks Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.



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