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Messner's Thin Granite State Ties An Issue On Senate Campaign Trail

Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen is running for a third term this year against challenger Republican Corky Messner. Shaheen is a former governor of New Hampshire, whose political career in the Granite State spans decades, while Messner, a 63-year-old Army veteran and attorney, recently moved to the state from Colorado.

NHPR senior political reporter Josh Rogers spoke with All Things Considered host Peter Biello about Messner’s background and whether New Hampshire roots really matter in campaigns.

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Peter Biello: So, Josh, tell us about Messner's background. He spent most of his adult life outside of New Hampshire, correct?

Josh Rogers: Yes. Corky Messner was born in Pennsylvania and attended West Point in the 1970s. And while a cadet, he says he visited New Hampshire somewhere near Mount Monadnock to help close up a fellow cadet’s family’s camp for the season. And according to a biography on Messner’s campaign website, that brief visit was when he “fell in love with the state.” And it was then, again, according to his campaign bio, that he promised himself that “one day I'd be a Granite Stater.” Must have been a heck of a visit.

By Messner’s own telling, which appears on that website under the heading “Proud Granite Stater,” it took him a while to consummate his status as a Granite Stater. He first served in the military. He became a lawyer. He put down roots in Denver, and then first purchased a vacation house in Wolfeboro, on Lake Wentworth, in 2007.

And his website also details very precisely his acquisition of another lot next to his house and two other parcels in the area. It talks about how he offers free legal advice around town and that he sublets office space to the Lake Wentworth Watershed Association at a “submarket rate,” it notes he sure to use local contractors and companies for numerous projects at his properties. I've read a lot of candidate bios, and I've never seen one with those sorts of details included.

Biello: Ok, so he's pitching himself as a property owner and active community member. But Messner’s only claimed New Hampshire as his full-time residence recently.

Rogers: Yes. He owns still owns houses in Colorado, but Messner has voted in New Hampshire absentee in 2018. And, as has been pointed out, that means he's never actually voted in a U.S. Senate race in a state he now hopes to represent in the U.S. Senate.

Biello: And given that background, opponents have taken swipes at him, calling him “Colorado Corky.” Is that as bad as the criticism of him gets?

Rogers: Well, it's certainly the central critique of Messner. He did obviously win the Republican primary. He defeated Don Bolduc, whose family has deep New Hampshire roots that stretch back to the colonial era. Messner spent a lot more money, mostly his own, and he certainly benefited by being endorsed by President Trump. But, you know, Bolduc’s campaign definitely tried to make Messner’s alleged carpetbagging an issue. And incumbent Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, her campaign is doing the same with more resources and really on behalf of a stronger candidate who's been deeply involved in New Hampshire politics for a really long time, basically since the time, you know, Messner made his initial visit to New Hampshire that he says set him on his course to living here.

Biello: Messner has obviously met the ballot requirements to run. He won the Republican primary. New Hampshire is a state with a lot of population churn. So I guess the question is: does the fact that he spent a lot of time earlier in his life out of state matter? Do voters really care how long a candidate has lived in the state?

Rogers: That's a fair question. It's one voters decide on a case by case basis. It's true that only 42 percent of the people who live in New Hampshire are native born. That's a lower percentage than both the national average and the New England average. But moving here for politics, or appearing to move here for politics, can be another matter. Two years ago, in the Democratic primary for the 1st Congressional District, Maura Sullivan, originally from Illinois, faced carpetbagging accusations and she lost that primary.

And in 2016, former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, whose ties to New Hampshire are more substantial than Messner’s, lost to Jeanne Shaheen. It's hard to know how much Brown's emigre status from Massachusetts hurt him in that race. But you may recall a moment in the televised debate, when Scott Brown spoke of Sullivan County as if it were a bit further north than it actually is. That race was pretty close. Polling indicates this one, between Messner and Shaheen, may be less so. But at the same time, it may be telling that the ad that Gov. Chris Sununu recorded on Corky Messner’s behalf is called “One of us.”

Messner’s main line of attack against Jeanne Shaheen is that she's “gone D.C.,” that she’s left New Hampshire behind. On the one hand, that is a pretty generic critique against any U.S. senator seeking a third term. But, in a way, it almost seems like an effort to neutralize one of Shaheen’s strengths – her long time serving the state – and turn it into a liability. And the flip side of that is that it could, at least in theory, make Messner’s far flimsier ties to the state seem like a plus.">WATCH NHPR's U.S. Senate Candidate Debate Between Corky Messner and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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