Fireworks at GOP 1st Congressional District debate in Concord

  • Sen. Andy Sanborn sits alone on the stage during a debate in the race for the Republican nomination in New Hampshire’s 1st Congressional District at the Grappone Conference Center in Concord on Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018. PAUL STEINHAUSER / For the Monitor

For the Monitor
Published: 8/17/2018 12:05:22 AM

A debate between the two leading Republicans in the 1st Congressional District race turned into a spectacle Thursday night, with one of the candidates being asked to leave after refusing to sign a party unity pledge.

The debate – organized by the New Hampshire GOP and held at the Grappone Conference Center in Concord, included state Sen. Andy Sanborn of Bedford and Eddie Edwards of Dover, a Navy veteran who later served as chief law enforcement officer for the state liquor commission and police chief of the small town of South Hampton.

After refusing to sign the pledge, Edwards told the Monitor “I’m pledging my loyalty to the voters of this state. That’s where I’m pledging my loyalty.”

But Sanborn countered that “we have to respect what the chairman of the GOP said. He set ground rules for everyone who was going to come here. Everyone should have played by the same rules.”

While there are five candidates running for the 1st District GOP nomination, the primary appears to be a two-person battle between Edwards and Sanborn. And in recent weeks, the race has turned bitter, with both candidates accusing the other of lying.

Edwards’s record at the Liquor Commission, his settlement with the commission and his tenure on a nonprofit board that funded Planned Parenthood have all come under the microscope in recent weeks.

So has Sanborn’s conduct in the state Senate. The lawmaker was investigated for his acknowledged cracking of a ‘crass’ joke in a 2013 incident. Sanborn was cleared of wrongdoing in the incident by State House officials.

On the eve of the debate, Edwards refused to sign a the state party’s pledge, which includes supporting whomever wins the Sept. 11 primary. The state party mandated that Edwards and Sanborn – and the five candidates invited to take party in the 2nd Congressional District primary – sign the pledge before being allowed to take part in the debates.

But after gathering with supporters at VFW Post 1631 in downtown Concord, Edwards arrived at the Grappone Center minutes before the start of the debate.

The moderator of the debate, morning news-talk radio host Jack Heath, told the crowd, “I think we’d all like a debate. And I want to debate the issues.”

With Sanborn sitting on the debate stage, Health asked Edwards to come forward and join Sanborn.

Edwards vowed to “support the party” and said he would also commit to attending the party’s post-primary unity breakfast.

Sanborn supporters in the audience chanted “sign the pledge, sign the pledge.”

Edwards supporters countered by loudly calling for a waiver to allow Edwards to debate.

“Let them debate,” they chanted.

Sanborn, sitting next to Edwards, highlighted that “I believe in the Republican Party. I signed the unity pledge because I believe in Republicans. I believe in what we mean. I believe in our value set.”

Edwards countered that “to sign a form and have people tell you ‘just sign it; you don’t have to believe it,’ is absurd.”

After Edwards again refused to sign the pledge, New Hampshire GOP Chairman Wayne MacDonald said, “We’ve asked the same of all seven candidates. And that’s our position. All seven candidates have to abide by the rules.”

I have a great deal of respect for you,” MacDonald said to Edwards.

But he added “I have to insist that you do what the other candidates who are participating tonight have done. And if you can’t do that, I’m sorry. And we’ve made that clear many times.”

With that, Edwards stood up, took off his microphone, and walked out of the debate hall.

Speaking to reporters moments later, Edwards highlighted that he’s debated Sanborn numerous times but claimed a moral victory in the night’s debate.

“Now, because he’s losing on every single principle, every single one, now the party’s going to get with him and try to force me to sign a pledge. That’s ridiculous,” Edwards said.

“WMUR is having a debate. I’ll be at that one. I bet you they won’t have a silly form like this,” Edwards added.

And he confidently predicted that “I’m going to win the primary. There’s no question about that.”

Edwards also once again accused Sanborn of lying about his record, adding that “the gentleman on that stage, if I can call him that, he is going to sell out.”

After Edwards walked out, Sanborn answered policy questions from Heath for the remainder of the hour.

Later, he told reporters he’ll “absolutely” support Edwards if his rival wins the GOP nomination.

“Every single time we’ve been asked, I’ve said I will support the winner of the process. Let me be honest, I hope it’s me. But whoever wins the primary is a Republican and I’ll be supporting them,” he said.

And Sanborn claimed that “throughout this entire campaign we have done everything in our power to talk about the policies and the value sets that the people of New Hampshire are concerned about. Running in politics today should not be about personal attacks, should not be about running around in the gutter.”

And he touted his restraint.

“As you saw tonight, I did not speak ill about my opponent because I think it’s not something we should be doing. It’s not something the voters want to hear,” he said

Eleven Democrats and one Libertarian are also running in the 1st District in the race to succeed retiring four-term Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter. The district has pingponged between Democratic and Republican control in the past four elections and is considered one of the most high-profile swing congressional districts in the country.

The district is also one of only a dozen in the country that President Donald Trump won in 2016 that Democrats control. That gives the GOP, as they try to hold onto their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, hopes that they can flip the 1st District from blue to red.

MacDonald told the Monitor he isn’t worried that the bruising battle between Sanborn and Edwards will jeopardize the party’s chances of recapturing the seat in November’s midterm elections.

MacDonald said both candidates “want to see the party do well in November. I’m very optimistic that that’s going to happen and I’m very optimistic they’re both going to do what they can to make sure really successful outcome in November.”

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