MANCHESTER, N.H. — On paper Maura Sullivan may be the perfect Democratic congressional candidate: Iraq War veteran, two Harvard degrees, and prominent roles in the Obama administration. She counts US Representative Seth Moulton and political adviser David Axelrod as allies, and she has raised more money than any other New Hampshire candidate for Congress in history.
There’s just one thing: Sullivan moved to the state three months before announcing her campaign, and she has almost zero ties to New Hampshire.
To be fair, when she moved to Portsmouth in July 2017 with her fiance, no one expected US Representative Carol Shea-Porter to announce her retirement. In fact, just a few months before Sullivan moved to New Ham psh ir e, she was reportedly recruited to run for Congress in the Chicago suburbs where she grew up.
But if she pulls off a win in the Sept. 11 primary — something local political observers say is increasingly possible — she would further upend the state’s parochial political culture built on grass-roots activism. In the district that includes Manchester, the Seacoast, and the state’s Lakes Region, she faces 10 candidates, many of whom, unlike her, have been embedded in the state party ranks for decades.
“The defining narrative in this race has been about Sullivan, someone who came out of state and is raising all this out-of-state money,” said University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala. “New Hampshire’s self image already took a huge hit when Donald Trump won the last Republican presidential primary without going through the traditional retail politics motions, but this could take it to another level.”
Among the others running for the nod in the First District are Shea-Porter’s chief of staff, Naomi Andrews; former Somersworth mayor and longtime county prosecutor Lincoln Soldati; the son of a two-time former nominee for governor, tech businessman Deaglan McEachern; the longtime head of the New Hampshire AFL-CIO, Mark MacKenzie; and state Representative Mindi Messmer. Also in the race: The son of US Senator Bernie Sanders, Levi Sanders, who lives in Claremont, which is more than an hour outside of the district.
But observers say the Democratic nomination will probably come down to two candidates: Sullivan and Executive Councilor Chris Pappas, both of whom are 38 years old.
Pappas hails from a well-known Manchester family who own the Puritan Backroom restaurant, a local haunt for politicos. Both of the state’s US senators have endorsed him, and he has benefited from some outside money, with interest groups such as Equality PAC hoping to make him the first openly gay person to win major office in the state history.
Sullivan and Pappas are the only candidates airing television ads and are far ahead of competitors when it comes to staffing and campaign infrastructure. There has not been any recent public polling in the race.
Last week offered a capsule into the race: Pappas held a press conference Tuesday with Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who officially endorsed him. At the same moment, Sullivan was holding campaign events with former US secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. No other campaign held public events that day.
Pappas doesn’t directly refer to Sullivan’s loose ties to the district, but he does hint at them. For example, his campaign suggested in June that all candidates in the race take the “Homegrown Campaign Pledge,” in which they vow that a majority of campaign funds would come from the district.
According to The Center for Responsive Politics, only 2 percent of Sullivan’s $1.5 million in fund-raising comes from inside the district — compared with 53 percent for Pappas, who has brought in $665,800 so far.
Early in the race, every media interview with Sullivan included questions about her residency. Sullivan would reply she has fond memories of vacationing in the state as a kid and that she once knocked on doors for Shea-Porter in 2006 when she was at Harvard.
More recently, she dismisses the issue, saying it is not what voters care about. “The first chance my fiancé and I had to put down roots, we chose Portsmouth as our home,” she said in a statement to the Globe. “But what I hear from voters isn’t about how long I’ve lived here — what I hear is that our children are afraid to go to school because of gun violence, seniors and working families are worried about affording health care, women are concerned about their reproductive rights.”
New Hampshire voters have seen outsider candidates before. In 2014, Republicans nominated Scott Brown — a former US senator from Massachusetts — over three local candidates. That same year, Republicans picked as their candidate for governor Walt Havenstein, who barely survived a residency challenge to remove him from the ballot. (The only residency requirement for congressional candidates is to live in the state on Election Day.)
But there’s a key difference: Republicans, struggling for a strong contender to challenge Shaheen and then-governor Maggie Hassan four years ago, recruited Brown and Havenstein, whereas Democrats this year note there are plenty of local options for the First District.
The First District has been dubbed “the swingiest swing district” because it has switched party hands in every election since 2008. In 2016, both Trump and Shea-Porter, a Democrat, won the district.
James Pindell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics: http://pages.email.