On the trail: Close contest for Congress in 2nd District

  • Burns

  • Kuster

  • Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and GOP Senate candidate Don Bolduc at Poor Boy's Diner in Londonderry. PAUL STEINHAUSER / For the Monitor

For the Monitor
Published: 9/23/2022 5:18:16 PM
Modified: 9/23/2022 5:17:37 PM

Democratic U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster cruised to re-election in 2018 and 2020, winning both contests by double digits over Republican challenger Steve Negron.

But as she runs for a sixth two-year term representing New Hampshire’s Second Congressional District – which covers the western half of the state from the Massachusetts border north and includes Concord and surrounding towns as well as the North Country – a new poll indicates that the Democrat from Hopkinton faces a stiff challenge from 2022 GOP nominee Robert Burns.

And the new numbers from the University of New Hampshire Survey Center also suggest that Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan and Rep. Chris Pappas – who represents the state’s First Congressional District – have slightly more breathing room than Kuster, but that their leads over their GOP challengers are only in the upper single digits.

Kuster holds a 48%-45% edge in support over Burns among likely Second District voters, according to the poll, which was conducted Sept. 15-19, entirely after the Sept. 13 primary in New Hampshire. Seven percent of those questioned were undecided. Kuster’s margin is within the poll’s sampling error, meaning the race is statistically tied.

Burns, a former Hillsborough Country treasurer who unsuccessfully ran for the 2018 GOP congressional nomination in the Second District, narrowly edged Keene Mayor George Hansel in this month’s primary, with former Libertarian Lily Tang Williams close behind in third place. Burns spotlighted his strong support for former President Donald Trump and ran as a MAGA-Republican during the primary.

The poll indicated Kuster grabbing the support of 99% of Democrats while Burns, following a combustible primary, had the backing of 85% of Republicans. The survey suggested 58% of independents supported Burns. Kuster led among those under age 35, women and those with college degrees, while Burns enjoyed the advantage among men and those without college degrees.

According to the poll, 40% of Second District voters have a favorable opinion of Kuster, with 41% seeing her in an unfavorable light. Burns, who’s unknown to many voters, held a 18%-21% favorable/unfavorable rating with 42% saying they didn’t know enough about him to form an opinion.

Veteran New Hampshire-based political scientist Wayne Lesperance called the close contest in the Second District “surprising given Kuster’s incumbency, fundraising prowess, and focus on issues like abortion rights” in the wake of the late June blockbuster opinion by the conservative majority on the Supreme Court of the United States to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, throwing the combustible issue of legalized abortion back to the states. Democrats have spotlighted abortion in the wake of the ruling, which has appeared to energize their party’s base.

“There are three possible explanations for the closeness of this particular race. First, voters in the survey continue to identify pocketbook issues as their first and second primary concerns. Abortion rights, while significant in the poll, trails economic issues. Second, respondents have the Congresswoman upside down in terms of her favorability rating 40-41. Finally, perhaps what explains these results best may be the fact that voters have yet to know her challenger, Bob Burns. According to the poll 42% of respondents did not know enough about Mr. Burns to decide whether they had a favorable or unfavorable opinion about him,” Lesperance, vice president of academic affairs at New England College, said.

In the Senate race, Hassan’s being challenged by former Army Gen. Don Bolduc, who’s making his second straight bid for the Senate and who narrowly won the GOP nomination in a crowded divisive primary showdown. The Senate race in battleground New Hampshire is one of a handful across the country that will likely determine if Republicans win back the chamber’s majority in November’s midterms.

Hassan stands at 49% support among likely voters in the poll, with Bolduc at 41%. Five percent questioned said they’d vote for Libertarian candidate Jeremy Kauffman and an equal amount were undecided.

The survey indicates that Hassan enjoys 98% backing from Democrats, while only 83% of Republicans are supporting Bolduc. The former general ran an outsider-style campaign as a populist and MAGA-Republican in the primary, winning the nomination by a razor-thin margin over longtime New Hampshire Senate President Chuck Morse, a more mainstream conservative who was backed by popular GOP Gov. Chris Sununu.

“Bolduc will need to heal the intra-party divide and increase his support among Republicans if he is to have a chance at defeating Hassan,” UNH Survey Center director Andrew Smith said.

Among independent voters, Bolduc stood at 45% support, with Hassan at 30% and Kauffman at 21%. The poll also indicated Hassan with a large advantage among those under age 50, women, and people with college degrees, while Bolduc led among those 65 and older, men, and people without college degrees.

Despite her 8-point lead over Bolduc, the poll indicates Hassan’s favorable rating remains in negative territory, at 40% favorable and 49% unfavorable. Republicans have long viewed Hassan as vulnerable as she runs for re-election due to her underwater favorable and approval ratings in most public opinion polling.

The new survey indicated Bolduc at 26% favorable and 43% unfavorable, with just over three in ten either neutral or didn’t know enough about the candidate to form an opinion.

The poll also indicates two-term Democratic Rep. Chris Pappas – a former executive councilor whose family owns Manchester’s well-known Puritan Restaurant and conference center - with a 50%-43% advantage over GOP challenger Karoline Leavitt in the state’s First Congressional District, which for a generation has been one of the top U.S. House swing seats in the country.

Lesperance noted that the UNH poll was “taken in the immediate aftermath of the competitive GOP primaries. Their campaigns have been in the news in a sustained way in recent weeks. Incumbents are just now getting in front of voters in a meaningful way. There’s time and they have resources. It will be interesting to see if these numbers hold in the coming weeks.”

2022 trips couldpay dividends in 2024

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg returned to New Hampshire to headline a major state Democratic Party fundraising gala.

While the mission of the trip was to support Democrats running in November’s midterm elections, Buttigieg’s stop in the state that for a century has held the first primary in the White House race could also potentially pay dividends if President Biden eventually decides against seeking a second term and Buttigieg ultimately launches another presidential campaign.

Buttigieg headlined the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s Eleanor Roosevelt Dinner, which is the state party’s largest annual fundraising event. Longtime state party chair Ray Buckley described the gathering as the largest event of either party in the Granite State since the February 2020 presidential primary.

This is Buttigieg’s third visit to New Hampshire since taking over as Transportation Secretary in early 2021 at the start of President Biden’s administration. The first two trips – in Manchester in December of last year and in the northern New Hampshire city of Berlin last month – were official visits. Buttigieg has been crisscrossing the country the past 10 months to showcase the benefits of the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package the president signed into law last year.

Buttigieg is well known in New Hampshire and was a major draw to headline the state party dinner. The former South Bend, Indiana, mayor went from longshot to one of the top contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, narrowly edging Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in the Iowa caucuses before coming in a close second to Sanders in the New Hampshire presidential primary.

With the starting gun in the 2024 White House race firing after the conclusion of November’s elections, questions persist as to whether the 79-year-old Biden will seek a second term as president.

While Biden has repeatedly said for a year and a half that he intends to run for re-election, the president this month added uncertainly into the 2024 conversation by noting that “it’s much too early” to make any decision.

“Look, my intention, as I said, that began with is that I would run again. But it’s just an intention. But is it a firm decision that I run again? That remains to be seen,” Biden said in an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

There was a slew of stories early this summer over Democratic dissatisfaction with Biden potentially running for re-election. But the president’s rebounding poll numbers during the late summer and a slew of legislative victories for his administration in Congress have quieted much of the buzz.

Nevertheless, speculation continues over whether Biden will seek another term, and which Democrats will run if the president doesn’t launch another campaign.

“Heading to New Hampshire ahead of a midterm in an absolute battleground state like New Hampshire, and with existing volunteers and former staff from his primary run in the state, there will obviously be political benefits to the secretary coming to New Hampshire, whatever 2024 looks like,” New Hampshire based Democratic strategist and activist Lucas Meyer said.

“It’s always good to have infrastructure and relationships in New Hampshire and to keep those fresh. It’s good politics all around for him to be here,” Meyer, the founder of the progressive public advocacy group 603 Forward and former president of the New Hampshire Young Democrats, emphasized.

A day earlier, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who served as ambassador to the United Nations during former President Donald Trump’s administration returned to New Hampshire to campaign with Bolduc.

Haley, who says she’s considering a potential run for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, said during a stop in Londonderry on Friday that “if we don’t win in November, there is no 2024.”

But she also reiterated that “after November, we’ll figure it out. But you know what I’ve said – I’ve never lost a race. I’m not going to start now. If there’s a place for me, we’ll put a 100% in and we’ll finish it.”

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