MANCHESTER, N.H. (CN) — Tuesday’s primary in New Hampshire — which could lead to the first Congressional election in U.S. history between two openly gay candidates — will also be an early test of President Donald Trump’s strength in a swing state that could be critical in November.
Trump has endorsed two non-incumbent candidates in races for Congress, both of whom have been criticized as “carpetbaggers” without long ties to the state. Tuesday’s results could indicate whether Granite State Republicans are falling in lockstep behind the president or will exhibit their famous independent streak.
The battle in the state’s 1st Congressional District is being closely watched because it’s one of the swingiest districts in the country, having changed hands four times between Democrats and Republicans from 2010 to 2016. Trump narrowly carried it in 2016 but two years later it elected its current Democratic Representative Chris Pappas.
In the Republican primary to challenge Pappas, Trump endorsed Matt Mowers, a 31-year-old from New Jersey who ran Chris Christie’s 2016 New Hampshire campaign. Mowers was later appointed by Trump as a senior White House adviser and worked as chief of staff to Dr. Deborah Birx.
Despite Mowers’ role as a senior adviser, Trump mispronounced his name while endorsing him.
Mowers is running against Matt Mayberry, an Air Force veteran and businessman who claims to be more in touch with the district, which includes gritty Manchester as well as the seacoast and some rural areas.
“I’m the New Hampshire candidate,” Mayberry said. “I’ve been to all 239 towns and cities … I am Market Basket and Walmart, and my opponent is Whole Foods and Starbucks.”
A poll in August showed Mowers ahead 23% to 12% with well over half the Republican electorate still undecided.
Like Pappas, Mayberry is openly gay.
“It would be the first time in American history that both candidates for major office are gay,” he said. Mayberry would also be Congress’s first openly gay Republican.
Mowers leads in the money race, having raised almost $700,000 as of Aug. 19 with almost $375,000 in cash on hand. Mayberry raised less than $175,000 and had less than $22,000 on hand, according to the Federal Election Commission.
Mowers has also been endorsed by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, while Mayberry was endorsed by former New Hampshire Senator John Sununu and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.
In the U.S. Senate primary, Trump endorsed Corky Messner, an independently wealthy West Point graduate who is anti-abortion rights and pro-gun and supports border security and free-market health care.
But Messner, if anything, is the moderate in the race. His opponent, Brigadier General Donald Bolduc, recently ran an ad consisting almost entirely of him saying “I didn’t spend my life defending this country to let a bunch of liberal socialist pansies squander it away.”
On screen, the ad describes Bolduc as “American Patriot. Hero. Bad*ss.”
Addressing the pandemic, Bolduc told a reporter, “I am unapologetically of the opinion that the masks cause more problems than they solve.”
The current senator, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, has a large lead over both candidates, polls show.
Messner has far more money than Bolduc, but that’s because he contributed more than $3.8 million of his own funds to his campaign. Bolduc has raised more money than Messner through individual contributions.
Pulling in a lot of small donations “is often an indication of organizational strength that doesn’t show up in polling,” noted Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. Although Messner is ahead in the polls, “I wouldn’t be shocked if Bolduc won,” Smith said.
Like Mowers, Messner has been criticized for having few ties to the state — in fact he hasn’t lived in New Hampshire long enough to run for the state Legislature.
He has also been the subject of scandal. In November 2006 his ex-wife filed an emergency court petition to have him removed from their Colorado home, claiming that she feared violence. And a former chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court has requested a criminal investigation into a charitable foundation that Messner ran, citing allegations that it claimed to help low-income college students but awarded just one scholarship in its first 10 years.
Messner’s campaign said the program didn’t formally begin operating until 2016 and a second scholarship was recently awarded.
The two Trump endorsements have helped to define the race. “People seem to be dividing themselves into camps,” said Phyllis Woods, who chairs the Strafford County Republican Committee. “Are they the Bolduc/Mayberry camp or the Mowers/Messner camp?”
The Trump endorsements are particularly valuable this year because voters haven’t received a lot of other information about the candidates, said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.
Voters have been distracted by the pandemic and the presidential election and in-person campaigning has been limited by the virus, Scala noted.
“I pity any candidates who are trying to get their names out there this summer,” he said.
In the gubernatorial race, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes and attorney Andru Volinsky are vying to take on popular Republican Governor Chris Sununu, the brother of the former senator, who is seeking a third term.
Volinsky is best known for handling a landmark education funding lawsuit in the 1990s. Feltes is a former legal aid attorney who claims to be a champion of working families.
New Hampshire is one of only two states that have neither a sales tax nor an income tax on wages (the other is Alaska), and Volinsky has raised eyebrows by saying that he’d be willing to consider imposing one.
Volinksy “is from the Bernie Sanders wing of the party,” said Scala. If he wins after saying he’d consider a broad-based tax, “it would upend two decades of gubernatorial primaries in which the Democratic Party has chosen to play it safe and not give Republicans an issue to run on.”
Both Democratic candidates have criticized Sununu for his approach to the coronavirus, including his decision to allow local school districts to decide how to reopen. In a recent poll, however, 76% of likely voters said they approved of Sununu’s handling of the pandemic, including 63% of Democrats.
“We rate the primary as a toss-up,” said Smith. But he added that non-presidential primaries in the state are hard to poll because turnout tends to be low and it’s difficult to predict who will show up. That’s especially true this year because of the pandemic, on top of which “the candidates are largely unknown and the election is the day after Labor Day,” Smith noted.
On the Republican side, Sununu faces minor primary opposition from Karen Testerman, a libertarian radio talk show host, and a man named Rich Paul who legally changed his name to Nobody because, he said, “a lot of the jobs in government, nobody should do.”
Nobody states on his website that “I can’t even count how many times I’ve been arrested” including one instance where “I sold a pound of weed to a guy I used to buy ecstasy from.”
New Hampshire has a “semi-closed” primary in that voters who are registered to one party can only vote in that party’s balloting but independent voters can vote for either side.
Everyone in the state is eligible to vote by mail this year due to a pandemic-related order signed by Sununu.