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Smith hopes blend of conservative activism, government work finds support in GOP Senate primary

Kevin Smith in the State House
Dan Tuohy
/
NHPR
Kevin Smith walks to file his candidacy papers with the New Hampshire Secretary of State's Office, June 8, 2022.

When Kevin Smith launched his campaign for U.S. Senate earlier this year, he stressed pocketbook issues and emphasized how he would represent a changing of the political guard.

“What Republican voters, what independent voters are looking for is that new generation of conservative leadership, which is what I represent,” Smith told reporters after filing his candidate papers at the State House in June.

In his campaign materials and stump speeches, Smith highlights his experience as manager for the town of Londonderry and chair of the Pease Development Authority, with lots of talk of tax rates and budget surpluses.

But depending on the audience, and particularly when addressing hardcore GOP activists, Smith also leans into the fact that he’s been around — and pushed issues dear to cultural conservatives — for a very long time.

“Past is prologue,” Smith told attendees at the Belknap County Republican Committee meeting earlier this month. “You can look at my past record. You can look at what I’ve done in the past conservative grassroots movement.”

By traditional measures, Smith’s resume – with its pairing of government management experience and conservative activism — would be a plausible foundation on which to build a campaign. But during a political moment where many Republican voters say they distrust government and politics, Smith’s background, which includes no private sector work, may present voters with a mixed bag.

For a 44-year old, Smith’s past in conservative politics is long. It reaches all the way back to the 1990s, when the Christian Coalition named Smith — then a teenaged state representative — its “Pro-Family” House Member of the Year for championing abortion limits in Concord.

Smith says his perspective on abortion hasn’t much changed in the past 25 years, but does acknowledge the way he approaches hot button social issues has. For instance, when activists press Smith these days — asking him how many genders he believes there are, for instance — Smith answers directly: He says he believes there are two, and quickly moves.

Smith says that approach is informed by what political experience has taught him works.

“You can’t die on every hill, and I think that’s the problem today with both parties,” Smith said at a campaign stop in Merrimack recently. “You are never going to get stuff done that way.”

Same sex marriage, which he staunchly opposed for years, is an area where Smith says he has changed.

“The public has widely accepted it at this point and I don’t think it would be wise to go backwards on that,” Smith said.

But fighting same sex marriage arguably gave Smith much of his clout as a conservative more than a decade ago. The issue helped him transform the advocacy group Cornerstone, which he led from 2009 to 2011, from a sleepy player in state politics to a force. Smith was effectively the public face of opposition to New Hampshire’s move to legalize same-sex marriage.

Smith tried to leverage his rising profile into his own run for governor in 2012, but he lost badly in the Republican primary. Smith then turned to local government, taking the job as Londonderry town manager.

Smith’s eight years as a non-partisan administrator included presiding over booming growth in Londonderry. It also coincided with the rise of Trumpism in the Republican Party, which can make Smith’s sort of conservatism, with its firm but genial packaging of economic and social messages, feel like a bit of a throwback.

But for some old-line GOP activists, Smith’s record remains persuasive.

“His consistent conservative values are pretty solidly in place, and we can rely on that if we send him to D.C.,” said Phyllis Woods, of Dover, a former member of the Republican National Committee.

But it’s still unclear whether, in a wide Republican primary field that includes several candidates who boast of no political or government experience, Republican voters will feel the same.

As he waited to hear candidates give their stump speeches at a GOP event in Greenland last week, Mike Rowe, a retiree from Stratham, said he’s yet to pick a candidate in the Senate race. But he said he’d probably lean towards one without a long career in and around politics.

“I like people who have not been embedded in the system for their whole life and find this as a new opportunity, that recognizes problems from the outside and wants to solve them," Rowe said.

For Smith, this race may hinge on his solving a few problems. The first is persuading Republican primary voters that his qualifications are relevant at a time when political experience is rarely seen as a solution.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
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