On the trail: Top political handicapper rates NH's 2nd CD a toss-up

  • U.S. Representative Ann McLane Kuster visited Peterborough to discuss federal grants for the town’s water main project on May 3. Ben Conant / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

For the Monitor
Published: 6/17/2022 4:36:51 PM

Since first winning New Hampshire’s 2nd Congressional District a decade ago, U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster’s only had one close call as she’s successfully run for re-election every two years.

That was in 2016, when the Democrat from Hopkinton defeated GOP challenger Jim Lawrence by just four points in the district, which stretches from the Massachusetts border north to the Canadian border and includes the entire western half of the state, including the cities of Concord and Nashua, and the North Country.

But with Democrats facing historical headwinds in November’s midterm elections and a challenging political climate due to soaring inflation and skyrocketing gas prices capsulized by President Joe Biden’s underwater approval ratings in public opinion polling, a top national non-partisan political handicapper is now rating the Second District a toss-up seat.

That was the call this week from the Cook Report, which puts the Second District in the same classification as New Hampshire’s First District, along the eastern side of the state, which for a generation’s been considered one of the top swing seats in the country.

Regardless of the ranking, Kuster pointed to what she believes will be another challenging re-election.

“This district’s been tough for me,” Kuster told reporters early last week as she officially filed for reelection at the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s office at the State House in Concord. “It was Republican since, what, the 1870s when it was created? And we’ve worked very, very, very hard.”

Veteran New Hampshire-based political scientist Wayne Lesperance noted that Kuster will face a tough political test this year.

“While most voters are not quite yet paying attention to midterm elections, there are a number of forces working against Rep. Kuster’s re-election efforts,” Lesperance said. “First, historically, the party in power tends to under-perform in midterm elections. Second, and more importantly, current kitchen table issues like rising costs for everything and projected increases in power bills are working against President Biden and by extension his fellow Democrats. Ironically, Rep. Kuster is not responsible for these challenges. Still, voters tend to fix the blame on those in office.”

Kuster won’t know which Republican challenger will be facing off with her in November until New Hampshire’s early September primary. Regardless of who she faces, Kuster – who’s known as a ferocious fundraiser – will likely have a massive cash-on-hand advantage in her campaign coffers over the eventual GOP nominee.

“Kuster still has an advantage over whichever Republican challenger emerges in all of the metrics that matter – name-ID, fundraising, and experience,” Lesperance, vice president of academic affairs at Henniker-based New England College, said.

The ranking from Cook also appears to be a vindication for Gov. Chris Sununu.

For months, the GOP governor was critical of attempts by the Republicans who control the state legislature to upend more than a century of New Hampshire precedent and create two politically polarized districts. Sununu vetoed maps passed by the Republican majorities in the House and Senate that would have made Kuster’s Second District bluer and would have transformed the First District (currently held by two-term Democratic Rep. Chris Pappas) more favorable to Republicans.

Sununu repeatedly said the maps drawn by Republican lawmakers didn’t pass the “smell test” and argued that it would be foolish to make the Second District more favorable to the Democrats because he believed the GOP could win both of New Hampshire’s two congressional seats in November’s midterm elections.

“Annie Kuster’s going to be fired in November,” the governor predicted last Friday as he spoke with reporters after filing for his own reelection campaign.

The stalemate sent the redistricting process to the New Hampshire Supreme Court, which on May 31 produced a map that moved just five towns from the First to the Second District, to maintain a population balance. The new maps also keep both of the state’s two seats competitive.

“Perhaps the real winner that emerges from projections that CD-2 is a toss-up is Gov. Sununu,” Lesperance remarked. “While partisans wanted to see favorable redistricting done to give the GOP greater chances to win, the governor continued to claim that both districts are winnable by Republicans. That the Cook Political Report has CD-2 a toss-up appears to vindicate the governor in his claims.”

Spokesman Benjamin Vihstadt reiterated Sununu’s position.

“The governor was not going to give away the ability of CD2 voters to elect a Republican by signing a redistricting bill that would give Annie Kuster a job for life,” Vihstadt said.

“Republican voters deserve a fair chance to elect good Republican leaders regardless of their zip code, and it is not a coincidence that the Cook Political Report changed their rankings after the governor vetoed the two maps that would have ensured a safe Democrat seat in CD2,” Vihstadt said. “Had he signed one of those maps, Annie Kuster would be on her way to another term.”

Illinois Gov. Pritzker’s NH trip sparks speculation

Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois will be one of the featured speakers Saturday at the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s State Convention, which this year is being held at Manchester’s Memorial High School.

Pritzker’s trip to the state that for a century’s held the first primary in the race for the White House is sparking speculation that the first-term governor, billionaire businessman, philanthropist, and member of the family that owns the Hyatt hotel chain may have some future national ambitions.

“The truth is that I’m going to help other Democratic governors get elected,” Pritzker told reporters earlier this week in Chicago. “I can’t tell you anything other than I love the job that I have and that’s why I’m running for re-election of the governor of this state and I intend to do a good job for the people of our state for the next four years.”

Pritzker’s 2022 reelection campaign says that the governor’s focused on helping elect and re-elect Democrats across the country this year.

They also note that while he’s in New England this weekend, Pritzker will visit Massachusetts to support state attorney general Maura Healey, the front-runner for this year’s Democratic gubernatorial nomination, and will also stop in Maine, to support Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, who’s running for re-election.

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