Republican candidates vying to challenge Kuster have a lot to agree on

  • Republican candidates in New Hampshire’s 2nd Congressional District take part in a debate Thursday at the Grappone Conference Center in Concord. Paul Steinhauser / For the Monitor

For the Monitor
Published: 8/17/2018 6:17:28 PM

From tough stances on illegal immigration, skepticism of climate change and praise for the job performance of President Donald Trump, the leading candidates vying for the Republican nomination in New Hampshire’s Second Congressional District agree on many of the issues.

The five candidates invited to a New Hampshire GOP-organized debate at the Grappone Center in Concord on Thursday showed their similarities as they took aim at three-term Democratic Rep. Annie Kuster, but on a few occasions one of the contenders stood out from the rest of the pack.

Trumpeting Trump

While all five candidates repeatedly praised the president, Bedford resident and former Hillsborough County Treasurer Robert Burns touted that he was an original Trump supporter early on, when the other candidates were still nowhere to be found.

“It’s wonderful to see so many Republicans getting on board now with Donald Trump,” said Burns, who served as chair of the Trump campaign’s youth coalition and as a delegate to the 2016 GOP presidential convention.

“We need somebody who’s close to the administration, close to Trump,” said Burns, who jumped into the race in early June, just before the state’s filing deadline.

Similarly, most of the candidates criticized the Russia investigation – which Trump has repeatedly referred to as a witch hunt. But former state Rep. Lynne Blankenbeker of Concord – who’s spent more than 30 years in the military – stood apart with a softer stance.

“I think we need to let investigations do what the investigations need to do. We just need to let that happen on its own,” she said of the federal probe into Russian tampering into the 2016 presidential election and the possibility of collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign.

Cool on climate change

Some of the areas of agreement may resonate with conservative voters in the Sept. 11 primary, but could prove to be a tougher sell in the general election.

Virtually all of the candidates came out as climate change skeptics, saying the issue was a matter of partisan politics and scare tactics.

“I don’t believe necessarily that there is climate change that everybody is running around being scared,” said State Rep. Steve Negron, an Air Force veteran and businessman from Nashua.

Dr. Stewart Levenson, of Hopkinton, said that “climate change is being used as an excuse for the redistribution of wealth.”

Blankenbeker characterized the issue in partisan terms. “I don’t believe the climate change sky is falling in. ... I don’t see the climate change tragedy that the Democrats talk about,” she said.

“The scientific data has never been there to prove” that human activity is warming the planet and changing its weather patterns,” Burns argued.

“Now we talk a lot about ‘climate change’ because ‘global warming’ didn’t quite work out,” he said.

“I don’t believe that the global warming thing is as big as they make it,” said New Boston’s Brian Belanger, the fifth candidate taking part in the debate.

Saint Anselm College politics professor Christopher Galdieri said those type of comments may resonate with the audience at a GOP debate, but when it comes to a much wider electorate that will vote in November’s midterm elections, “you’re going to have people who do think this is a problem.”

“Climate change is one of those issues that has become an article of faith on the right side of the political spectrum that there’s nothing to worry about,” he said.

Galdieri added that “the positions you have to take to get nominated make it harder for you to win a general election.”

And he said that when it comes to a much wider electorate that will vote in November’s midterm elections, “you’re going to have people who do think this is a problem.”

Medicaid expansion

When the conversation turned to the state’s recently altered Medicaid expansion program, four of the candidates criticized the program, which has been targeted by conservatives.

Negron said he voted against Medicaid expansion during the recently concluded legislative session.

Burns said that “expanded Medicaid has been terrible for this state. It’s largely responsible for the opioid crisis,” he added.

Levenson, a former Department of Veterans Affairs regional director who in 2017 was one of the top whistleblowers at the Manchester VA Medical Center – called for continuing but repairing the program, which provides health coverage for more than 50,000 Granite Staters.

“Removing the safety net is rather difficult,” Levenson said. “What we need to do is repair the program, make it more cost effective and find ways where we can save money.”

Veterans issues

All five candidates said they strongly support health care options for veterans, but refused to commit to backing a full-service hospital in New Hampshire for veterans.

Levenson said that a full service hospital may not be the right idea.

“What they do need is a building that can take care of the needs of 21st Century healthcare and that building’s more money to maintain than to replace,” Levenson said.

Negron, who said that his wife is also a veteran and one of his sons is currently serving in the military, said a full-service medical facility is “one option. It’s not the only option.”

Immigration reform

None of the candidates took issue with the president’s policies on illegal immigration, including the controversial practice separating young children from their parents after illegally crossing into the U.S. from Mexico.

“I think we need to get tougher,” Burns said. “We need to be tough on these people and not back down because somebody might post some sad pictures out there that make Republicans look bad, because we know what right is, and what right is to stop the flow of illegal immigration.”

“I absolutely support a wall. Whether we build a figurative wall, a literal wall, or some combination of both, we absolutely need to secure our borders,” Blankenbeker said.

Levenson also advocated for Trump’s wall, saying that it’s not only for immigration, it’s for the opioid crisis.

“We can’t have a country with a free-flow of drugs, illegals, and you name it coming across our borders and causing destruction in the U.S.,” Levenson said.

Negron was more tempered on the issue.

“I sit in front of you as a grandson of a Mexican immigrant who came across here in 1921,” he said. “Look, we’re a land of laws. There’s a way to do things and we need to get back to doing it the right way. This wall is not about immigration. It’s a national security issue for me.”

Shots at Kuster

Each tried to make their case why they would be the best to serve in Congress, and that often meant taking aim at Kuster.

“I have the resume, the experience and the education that can stand up against Anne Kuster,” Blankenbeker said. “Congress is fractured, and we need to send this nurse to Congress to heal it.”

Negron joked to applause from the audience that, “I miss Ann Kuster and I want her home.”

He vowed to take the fight to the three-term Democratic congresswoman from Hopkinton and highlighted that if he wins the Sept. 11 primary, Kuster “has no idea what’s about to hit her.”

Levenson emphasized that “we need a conservative outsider to work with the president to bring about real change,” adding “I’m the one with an established background in being a reformer.”

Belanger pointed out that “I’m just a regular guy running for Congress to help bring the people’s voice back to Congress.”

Republican 2nd District candidates Jay Mercer and Gerard Beloin were not invited to the NHGOP debate.

The winner of the Sept. 11 primary will face off in November with Kuster, who didn’t face any primary opposition and maintains a large campaign cash advantage over her GOP challengers.

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