MANCHESTER, N.H. — Two years after losing the presidential election, Donald Trump is casting a long shadow over a pivotal congressional race in New Hampshire that pits one of his former White House press aides against a two-term Democratic incumbent.
Trump has endorsed Karoline Leavitt, a 25-year-old Republican who has said that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen,” in her challenge against Representative Chris Pappas, who has assailed her as an “ideological bomb-thrower.”
It’s a race where each candidate has labeled the other as extreme, where Trump-era arguments such as border security and support for the police are being rehashed, and where the outcome could help determine which party gains control of the House of Representatives.
The contest appears close in a district that includes Manchester, the state’s largest city, and much of eastern New Hampshire, from the seacoast to the Mount Washington Valley. Although a poll by St. Anselm College in late September gave Pappas an eight-point edge, a survey by AARP early this month showed the incumbent up by only one percentage point.
Politico and the Cook Political Report rate the race as a toss-up, with the University of Virginia Center for Politics saying the contest “leans Democratic.” RealClearPolitics describes the race as “leans GOP.”
“It’s a naturally competitive district, and this is a year when Republican candidates have the wind at their backs,” said Fergus Cullen, a Dover city councilor and former state Republican chair. “There are very few districts around the country that are usually in play, but this district is one of them.”
Republicans need to gain only five additional seats to regain control of the House, and money from GOP powerbrokers has been pouring into Leavitt’s campaign since her surprising primary victory, even though she had been shunned by many of them before then. If elected, Leavitt would be the youngest woman ever to serve in Congress.
“We’re going to win this race because voters are feeling the very real repercussions of the agenda that Chris Pappas has supported,” Leavitt said after a recent debate with Pappas. “They are feeling the 8.2 percent inflation. They are feeling the skyrocketing energy costs.”
Leavitt also said that New Hampshire voters are concerned about an alarming increase in opioid overdoses and fatalities “because of the scourge of fentanyl,” a trend that she linked to porous border security.
Pappas, meanwhile, has questioned whether Leavitt is qualified for Congress, given that her only adult work experience has been as a “political spin artist,” serving as an assistant press secretary in the Trump White House.
After Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election, Leavitt served briefly as communications director for Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, who became chair of the House Republican Conference after Liz Cheney was ousted.
“I think you’re better off with someone who has a track record of working across the aisle,” Pappas, 42, said between campaign visits to small businesses in downtown Manchester. “She’s an election denier. She wants to write the bill to privatize Social Security.”
A few hours later, in a debate at St. Anselm, Pappas described Leavitt as “one of the most radical candidates we’ve ever seen nominated for public office in New Hampshire.”
In 2021, Leavitt said Trump had won the election in separate interviews with WMUR in New Hampshire and Steve Bannon, an adviser to the former president, on his podcast. In addition to disparaging the 2020 results, Pappas said, Leavitt is out of step with most Granite State voters by supporting the Supreme Court ruling that overturned abortion access under Roe v. Wade, and by her opposition to the Affordable Care Act.
By contrast, Pappas said, he has sought common ground with Republicans on such legislation as the massive infrastructure bill passed under President Biden, and efforts to bolster border security by providing more agents and better interdiction technology.
Pappas said he also has worked to lower prescription drug prices, combat opioid abuse, and provide better care for veterans.
“We’re all on the same team, after all, and we have to start acting like it,” Pappas said at the debate, hosted by the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce.
Leavitt, a St. Anselm graduate who started a broadcast club there and once described herself as the college’s “token conservative,” campaigns on a familiar litany of GOP allegations, saying that Democrats support: high taxes, creeping gun control, rampant immigration, “defunding the police,” weakened military strength, and the teaching of critical race theory in schools.
But the overarching issue for Leavitt is inflation, which she says has cost the average New Hampshire family an extra $600 a month.
“Are you, your employees, and your families better off than you were eight years ago? The answer is no,” Leavitt said during the debate.
Both candidates lean heavily on their family experience with small businesses.
Pappas comes from a Greek-American family that for 105 years has operated a Manchester restaurant, where he said he washed dishes and bused tables. Leavitt said she learned the value of hard work during summers spent scooping ice cream at the family’s stand in Atkinson.
“My upbringing instilled an unrelenting work ethic,” Leavitt says on her campaign website. She also wrote there that “I worked tirelessly on an application for a position at the White House to serve the American people and President Donald J. Trump, and I was accepted.”
But looming over the nuts-and-bolts issues are lingering questions about her connection to the Trump agenda, and whether that hurts or helps her in a state that Trump lost in two presidential elections.
The former president endorsed Leavitt last week, writing in an e-mail that “Karoline Leavitt is fantastic. Vote for her and win. She has my Complete and Total Endorsement!”
As of Friday, however, Leavitt had not posted that endorsement among others on her website or included Trump’s announcement in news about the campaign. In the past, she has called Trump “certainly the greatest president in the history of my life.”
“I think it helped her win the primary and I think it’s a slight disadvantage in the general election,” Cullen, the former state GOP chair, said of Leavitt’s connection to Trump.
“She can’t pretend there’s any independence between her and the president. She worked for the guy, she’s a full-throated election denier, and that’s a huge dog whistle,” Cullen said, adding that he will not vote for her.
“For me, it’s a disqualifying issue,” Cullen said of election denial. “I don’t care what her position is on anything else.”
In an interview, Leavitt deflected questions about whether she believes the 2020 election was stolen.
“I’ve been very clear. I believe there were irregularities in the 2020 election,” Leavitt said.
However, she added, “the electors were certified for Joe Biden. He’s the president of the United States. That’s why voters in this district cannot afford to heat their homes this winter, literally choosing between heating and eating. That’s why I’m running.”
When pressed on whether she supported efforts to overturn the vote, Leavitt replied, “Do you want to talk about inflation? Do you want to talk about the border? Do you want to talk about crime?”
Leavitt, who has been endorsed by Republican Governor Chris Sununu, said questions about whether the 2020 election was stolen do not interest voters in the district. During the debate, Leavitt dismissed criticisms that she is a fringe candidate.
“My opponent continually labels me as an extremist. And frankly, I think that’s laughable,” she said. “It’s not extreme to want to put the families here in New Hampshire’s First District first.”
Pappas struck a different chord.
“It’s extreme to want to overturn a democratic election in this country,” the congressman said.
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.