In debate, Shea-Porter and Guinta try to label O’Connor

  • Independent candidate Shawn O'Connor, left, Democratic candidate Carol Shea-Porter, center, and Republican incumbent Frank Guinta, prepare to debate in the 1st congressional debate, Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016 at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Goffstown, N.H. (Thomas Roy/The Union Leader via AP) Thomas Roy

  • Independent candidate Shawn O'Connor, left, listens as Democratic candidate Carol Shea-Porter, center, argues with Republican Frank Guinta during the 1st congressional debate, Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016 at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Goffstown, N.H. (Thomas Roy/The Union Leader via AP) Thomas Roy

Monitor staff
Friday, November 04, 2016

The major-party candidates seeking to represent the 1st Congressional District spent considerable time Thursday trying to classify the independent newcomer, Shawn O’Connor, in the most-anticipated TV debate of their cycle.

Incumbent Republican Frank Guinta said O’Connor is a progressive, pointing to his early campaigning as a Democrat and his support for Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign.

Former Democratic congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter said O’Connor has moved around the spectrum, eventually settling as “a Republican independent. I listen to him talk about his economic theory and it’s a lot like” Guinta’s.

For his part, O’Connor said he’s as moderate as the district, which has changed party representation in each of the past three elections. The 39-year-old businessman’s presence itself in the debate was remarkable, as third-party candidates have rarely, if ever, qualified.

“I’ve been called a Democrat by Congressman Guinta. I’ve been called a Republican by Congresswoman Shea-Porter. I think that means I’m doing something right,” he said.

Here, both of O’Connor’s opponents – who know each other well, as they’re facing off for the fourth time – tried to jump in. Shea-Porter told Guinta, “I got this, alright?” and went on to explain her understanding of O’Connor’s politics.

“Frank and I have a right to be a little confused about how to define him,” she said.

In interviews after the debate, Guinta and Shea-Porter each said they thought O’Connor would take more votes from the other party than their own. His impact in the swing district is something political watchers will keep a close eye on Tuesday.

O’Connor suggested on stage that both his opponents “are upset about my meteoric rise in the polls,” in spite of the most recent University of New Hampshire survey that showed his share of the vote slightly less than half that of the major-party candidates. He has said his campaign’s internal polling is more positive.

Although he relished his opponents’ attempts to classify him on stage, he eluded potentially illuminating questioning in an interview about how he’ll vote in the presidential race.

O’Connor said he hasn’t yet ruled out any presidential candidates, including those from the Green and Libertarian parties. Donald Trump’s comments about women “would make it very difficult for me to support him,” and Hillary Clinton’s potential to assume the presidency while under investigation concerns him, he said.

“I think it truly is going to be a game-day decision,” he said. “I want to see, quite frankly, where this FBI thing goes before I make a final decision. Certainly, I mean, if it looks like she’s going to be indicted, that’s very problematic.”

He said he won’t necessarily tell voters what conclusion he arrives at, either.

Guinta, a former Manchester mayor who is seeking a third term in Congress, portrayed himself as an outsider candidate who has been able to work across the aisle.

His distance from the establishment was never more evident than when he settled a Federal Election Commission complaint last year stemming from a 2010 campaign finance violation. Top party officials, including U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, called for his resignation.

But he said the party has coalesced around his candidacy.

“We’re all working together to support the team and get the team elected,” he said, including with Ayotte.

Shea-Porter, a former social worker seeking her fourth term in Congress, noted that former state GOP chairman Fergus Cullen has alleged new campaign finance complaints against Guinta since the settlement. Although she didn’t press the issue in the debate, she said she wished Guinta would have addressed it.

“When he was up there talking, I felt he should have taken the opportunity to talk to the people of this district about that money,” she said. “It really matters. . . . It has everything to do with integrity.”

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325, nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @NickBReid.)