AMAC Exclusive – By Shane Harris
One of the most hotly contested House races anywhere in the country this year is in New Hampshire’s First Congressional District, where first-time candidate Karoline Leavitt is running to unseat incumbent two-term Democrat Chris Pappas. In a district which the Cook Political Report rates as having a partisan lean of just R+2, the race could prove to be a bellwether for control of Congress come January. For Leavitt – who would take Democrat Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s crown as the youngest woman to ever serve in Congress – the election will be a test of both the continued vitality of President Trump’s “America First” agenda and voters’ readiness for a new generation of conservative leaders to take charge.
With just over a week to go until Election Day, Leavitt has already solidified herself as a rising star within the party. Last month, she shocked much of the Republican establishment by winning a crowded 10-person primary despite her opponents massively outspending her. Most pundits expected Matt Mowers, the 2020 Republican nominee for the seat who went on to lose to Pappas in the general election, to win the nomination again. SuperPACs linked to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise spent millions to boost Mowers in the primary, and the Mowers campaign enjoyed the support of high-profile Republican figures like former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley.
But it was Leavitt who emerged victorious from the September 13 primary, winning big with 34.4 percent of the vote, compared to 25.2 percent for Mowers and 17.2 percent for Gail Huff-Brown, the wife of former Massachusetts U.S. Senator Scott Brown.
Leavitt’s success in the primary was due in large part to a robust and energized grassroots operation, something which has continued to serve her well in the lead-up to the general election. From the time she announced last year, Leavitt has hardly stopped crisscrossing the district, working tirelessly to raise her name ID and win support from dozens of local politicians and business organizations. Just this week, she picked up the endorsement of the two leading police associations in Manchester, New Hampshire’s largest city – a positive sign for her campaign as crime remains a top issue for voters.
Leavitt’s hard work and unique message throughout the primary didn’t go unnoticed in Washington, and she ultimately earned the support of several big names in Congress, including Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Utah Senator Mike Lee, Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan, and Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, for whom Leavitt worked before running for Congress. After winning the primary, she picked up big endorsements from New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu and former President Donald Trump.
As a candidate, Leavitt has embraced Trump’s brand of “America First” conservatism – perhaps unsurprising given that her career in politics began as a Presidential Writer and then Assistant Press Secretary in the Trump White House. But she has developed her own personal brand as well, one built around her youth, energy, and unapologetic defense of conservative values.
That brand was on full display at a debate earlier this week hosted by the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, where Leavitt slammed Pappas for his support of Democrats’ big spending policies. “We literally cannot afford two more years of Chris Pappas being in office,” she told the crowd gathered at Saint Anslem College, referring to the record-high gas prices and skyrocketing inflation seen under Democrat rule. Leavitt labeled Pappas a “partisan problem creator,” flipping the script on Democrats’ efforts to cast her as the “extremist” in the race.
In a district and state traditionally viewed as more moderate (both U.S. Senators and House members are Democrats, while the governorship and state legislature are controlled by Republicans) many pundits believed that Leavitt’s more conservative campaign would doom her in a general election contest against Pappas. But with just a few days to go until votes are counted, Leavitt instead appears to have all the momentum. Earlier this week, RealClearPolitics moved the race into the “leans GOP” column. As recently as three weeks ago, Pappas held an eight-point polling lead, but that advantage has now vanished, and the race is a statistical tie.
Almost certainly, some of this surge is due to broader national trends that are dragging Democrats down across the board. But there’s no denying that Leavitt’s willingness to buck the establishment, adhere to her own convictions, and simply outwork everyone else is paying dividends with voters. One GOP operative with experience in the state called her campaign “one of the most disciplined, well-run campaigns in recent New Hampshire political history.”
On November 8, we’ll find out if it all pays off with a victory. If so, we may well be witnessing the emergence of a future leader in the party and standard-bearer of the conservative movement.
Shane Harris is a writer and political consultant from Southwest Ohio. You can follow him on Twitter @Shane_Harris_.