July 20, 3:36 pm. Republican State Senator Nancy Stiles sits in her favorite Portsmouth coffee shop, wearing a summer dress and a necklace of big yellow beads. After serving three terms in Concord representing District 24, she’s decided to step down: time to give someone else a turn. Within weeks of Stiles’ retirement, a quartet of eager Republicans stepped in the race to replace her.
Stiles looks up over a half-eaten piece of cake and makes a wish. “I’m hoping the campaign doesn’t get overly nasty,” she sighs.
Then, a prediction: “But I think it’s going to, unfortunately.”
Stiles’ words — and what’s played out since — says a lot about the state of politics in New Hampshire in 2016.
In a year when campaign spending seems to have no limits and the tone of the presidential race can only be out-uglied by the tone of voters disparaging them, this little legislative district on the Seacoast is a kind of political petri dish.
Swirling around in this one district, you’ve got big outside money, accusations of unfair attacks, and the looming presence of Donald Trump, who crops up in nearly every political discussion these days.
But what about the candidates? Who do those District 24 Republican voters have to choose from on Tuesday?
Behind Door #1: Steve Kenda of North Hampton, a self-described “anti-establishment business guy.”
Door #2: Jim Maggiore of North Hampton, a selectman who’s been working in town government for a decade and calls himself “Mr. Mom” for all his years as a stay-at-home dad.
Door #3: Dan Innis of New Castle, UNH business professor and owner of a couple of hotels, who also ran for Congress two years ago.
Finally, Door # 4: Ray Tweedie of Rye, a mortgage broker and former member of Dover’s city council, until he was kicked off on accusations of ethics violations. He’s also got Stiles’ endorsement.
Whoever wins the GOP primary will enter a general election race in a district that's on the verge of extinction in New Hampshire: a truly competitive one. Since the last round of political redistricting, District 24 is one of New Hampshire’s most evenly split state Senate districts and one of the few that actually still “swings.” Both parties this year have their eyes on it.
On the Democratic side of the ballot this Tuesday, there’ll only be one name: State Rep. and local doctor Tom Sherman. But we’ll get to him later.
Two weeks after I see Stiles, her prophesy is fulfilled: The campaign gets nasty.
Fliers start appearing in Seacoast mailboxes in early August, cataloging Ray Tweedie’s criminal record: a couple of DWIs, the latest in 2013, and charges for domestic violence and criminal trespass (see below). Tweedie’s people answer with a mailer of their own, accusing Innis of being behind those fliers. They illustrate their point with bright yellow eyes photo-shopped on an image of Innis and claim that the first mailer lied about Tweedie’s criminal record (also below).
And when campaign finance reports come out later that month, voters get their first look into how much money—and muscle—each of these gentlemen have behind them.
We learn Innis has raised $65,000, the second highest amount of any non-incumbent Republican candidate statewide. Jim Maggiore’s total? Only $1,600 – enough for a stack of yard signs. We also learn who has the means to donate money to their own campaigns: both Steve Kenda and Dan Innis, the two guys who tout their success in business the most on the campaign trail (Kenda loaned himself $10,000; Innis $25,000). We learn that Ray Tweedie spent $2,594 at the “Victory Store” in Davenport, Iowa on signs, and that Steve Kenda bought $500 worth of meals for his volunteers from the Old Salt Restaurant.
But if you’re only looking at the candidates’s fundraising reports, you’re missing a big force in this race. It turns out a PAC called NH Priorities has put thousands of dollars towards one of the candidates: Dan Innis. The PAC is funded almost entirely by one Peter T. Paul of San Rafael, California. If that name's familiar, it’s probably because it’s the same as UNH’s business school, which Paul donated $25 million to construct. The same school where Innis served as dean from 2007 to 2013.
In fact, Paul’s PAC has spent nearly $40,000 to date on a handful of state Senate campaigns this year, including District 24. And while it’s hard to trace the PAC’s specific dollars to the Seacoast race – its finance report doesn’t list exactly how it spent that money -- each of those anti-Tweedie mailers bore the stamp: “Paid for by NH Priorities State PAC.”
It may seem odd: a political action committee, funded almost solely by one out-of-state millionaire, spending tens of thousands of dollars in a state Senate primary race. But it’s consistent with a trend this election year: big Republican donors, unsure about their party’s presidential nominee, directing their money down ballot. Just this week, the New Hampshire Republican Majority’s PAC proudly announced it had raised a quarter million dollars, with the most cash-on-hand for any such PAC in state history.
For candidates on the other end of that kind of fundraising bonanza, there are real consequences. Jim Maggiore, for instance, with less than $2,000 in his campaign coffers. His fundraising report lists no mailers, no fliers, no way to communicate with thousands of voters beyond his own shoe leather campaigning and a few yard signs.
When I talk to some of the Republican big-wigs in the district, they seem almost dismissive of Maggiore. “He’s just not trying hard enough,” one tells me.
But surely, proving you’re the guy for the job doesn’t just come down to how much money you have.
On a pleasant evening in August, the four candidates agree to meet at the Country View Restaurant in Greenland. (“A warm, comfortable, welcoming atmosphere awaits visitors from all over!” their website promises.) Fresh-faced, well-tucked Phillip Walsh, the 26-year old “media chair” of the Rye Republican Party, greets me at the door and announces it’s time to get started.
The four candidates take seats up front. Four pairs of leather loafers, four summer blazers, four guys with Seacoast tans. These men have less than three weeks to convince voters that they’re the one. The first question the moderator pitches them: “Why are you uniquely qualified to run the district?”
They go down the line, outlining their conservative values and the need to “bring back the New Hampshire Advantage.” They politely nod and listen to their opponents. Nancy Stiles sits a couple rows back, watching her would-be heirs with a grin on her face.
But there’s no mention of any of that stuff that’s showed up in these audience members’ mailboxes. No attacks. No accusations. Not even a mention of what might be the lowest hanging political fruit you could pick—a rival candidate’s criminal record.
Instead, as the night goes on, what these four guys share only seems to grow stronger. By the end, they’ve almost become one unit. Jim Maggiore chuckles to the crowd: “The four of us together, we’d make a great candidate.”
What anger the candidates do vent gets spent on their Democratic opponent, Tom Sherman. “I’m sure he’s a great gastroenterologist,” Steve Kenda tells the crowd, “But he’d make a terrible state senator.” “I will take it to him,” Dan Innis says.
When one man in the audience wearing a “Hillary for Prison” T-shirt raises his hand and tells the quartet of candidates that his values are “under siege,” Steve Kenda nods his head. Dan Innis tells the man he’s all for family values.
Then a woman in the back asks a question. She got these mailers…they had some personal attacks in there…and she knows Super PACs are having influence in politics…so…what do they think?
First up is Tweedie, who, after saying that personal attacks are unfair, quickly pivots to how he’s the best person to represent District 24. Then Innis, says almost the same thing, but adds that “we need to curb campaign spending.” Kenda and Maggiore: pretty much the same.
The event ends and as voters stream back into the night, I ask Innis about the mailers and the PAC and he insists that it’d be illegal for him to know anything about its plans of attack. When I walk over to Steve Kenda, he’s more subdued, if a little disheartened. We talk a little about his Facebook account, if he’s using it well enough.
Did the night do much to push any one into the lead? Hard to say.
Jim Maggiore is the last man standing by the door, and as we walk out he apologizes to the waitstaff if we’ve kept them there late.
“Man, they got harsh about Tom Sherman, huh?” he says. I ask what his game plan is for these last two weeks before the primary. “You’ll have to pardon my French, here, but this is really when it’s balls to the wall.”
I’d parked my car out behind the restaurant, and drive back around to the exit. Two figures are standing up ahead, waiting—silhouetted against a quiet road by the light of the half moon. I edge closer and roll down the window to greet Ray Tweedie and his campaign manager, recent college graduate Tyler Clark.
“So what do you think the story’s going to be, Natasha?” Tweedie asks with a smile. Clark jumps in: “Do you think I could take a look at it before you print it?”
That next week, the Union Leader publishes an editorial, headlined “Voters Deserve the Truth,” urging readers not to vote for Tweedie.
What do people want from their state senator?
In one last forum this past Tuesday, in a house overlooking the Atlantic, I kept wondering. Republicans from the neighborhood sat nursing plastic cups of white wine, listening intently to the four candidates make their case. The shelves were lined with biographies of former Republican presidents and histories of the American military.
Do these folks want someone who best understands school funding? Someone who’s focused on gun rights, or energy policy, or the environment?
Or do they want someone who can prove he’s “one of them?”
Mike Coutu, the most outspoken guest at the house party, puts that question this way: “Will you be enough of a hard ass?”
“Yes,” each candidates answers without missing a beat.