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Candidates in N.H.’s 1st Congressional District focus on national themes while trying to reach local voters

side by side photograph of Pappas and Leavitt
Todd Bookman/NHPR
Incumbent Democrat Chris Pappas, alongside his challenger Republican Karoline Leavitt

With just over a month until the election, the two main candidates in the race for New Hampshire’s 1st Congressional District are hitting the campaign trail with stops at fairs, farms and 5Ks. The scenes may be quaint and local, but incumbent Democrat Chris Pappas and Republican challenger Karoline Leavitt are both largely sticking to national issues where they think they have the strongest case to make with voters.

For Pappas, 42, seeking his third term in Congress, the focus has been on highlighting access to abortion, as well as his opponent’s continued false claims about the 2020 election. In a recent op-ed, Pappas also touted his support of reforms of prescription drug pricing for seniors.

Leavitt, 25, a former staffer in the Trump Administration press office, has meanwhile worked to highlight the damaging impacts of high inflation, as well as concerns about the number of migrants at the southern border. She characterizes Pappas as a “radical” Democrat aligned with party leaders rather than voters.

The candidates remain most comfortable sticking to their own favored policy lanes, and avoid areas where polls show they are weak. On the ground, this siloed messaging reflects where the race currently stands: a tight contest in a swing district where turnout from each party’s base could help determine the winner, as well as which party controls Congress.

“Extreme” vs. “Radical” 

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling June ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson ending a constitutional right to an abortion in America, Pappas has highlighted access to abortion as a key issue in November. He has claimed Leavitt supports a nationwide ban on the procedure, though Leavitt says Pappas is mischaracterizing her position, and that she believes the issue is best left in the hands of individual states.

Photo of Chris Pappas inside the New Hampshire State House
Dan Tuohy/NHPR
Pappas greets his supporters before filing his official candidacy paperwork last June.

Another issue Pappas has tried to bring to the forefront is Leavitt’s continued false claims about the 2020 election. At his first press conference of the general election, Pappas said Leavitt’s election denialism is “not based in truth or reality.”

“Most importantly, these claims are dangerous,” he added.

A post pinnedto the top of Leavitt’s Facebook page includes debate footage in which she repeats her belief that the election was “stolen” from former President Donald Trump. In his September press conference, Pappas committed to accepting the results of the general election. That same day, Leavitt also said she would accept the results.

Leavitt is countering her opponent’s portrayal of her as “extreme” by labeling Pappas as a “radical” Democrat in line with President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

In fundraising pitches, ads and cable news appearances, Leavitt has criticized Pappas for the wave of migrants at the southern border, his support of climate change legislation, and for persistent inflation.

A recent poll from the Boston Globe shows the economy is the top issue for New Hampshire voters, followed by the state of America’s democracy and abortion.

Pappas has acknowledged that inflation is a concern, writing in Seacoast Online about his support for reforms on prescription drug costs for seniors, home heating subsidies for lower income residents, and limits on oil exports.

Another topic Leavitt is putting front and center lately is a local court case with national overtones centered on how information about the identity of transgender students in public schools is shared with parents.

Last week, Leavitt held a press conference outside of Manchester West High school, which faced a lawsuit this year from the parent of a student who opposed the district’s policy of generally not disclosing a student’s transgender status unless the student gives permission.

A judge recently dismissed the lawsuit, saying a parent's right is not absolute.

Photo of Karoline Leavitt during event in Manchester
Todd Bookman/NHPR
Leavitt spoke outside of the Manchester School District's offices in opposition to a policy related to disclosing the transgender status of students.

Leavitt criticized the court’s decision, and said she is “listening to the concerns of parents in this district who don’t feel heard, who don’t feel that their rights, their basic rights as parents, are being violated.”

National themes, local results?

The issues dominating national politics—abortion, global economic challenges, border and immigration policies—will stay top of mind in the lead up to November. But the items junior members of Congress often try to deliver to their constituents – local grant money, clean water protections, and (in the case of the 1st District) protecting jobs at the naval shipyard, for instance – aren’t getting discussed that often on the campaign trail yet.

That could change in the coming weeks, when Pappas and Leavitt will take to the debate stage.

But the schedule for those debates is another area where the campaigns are struggling to find harmony. Each candidate has put forward competing lists of debates and forums they will participate in.

There is some overlap, including a televised debate on WMUR, meaning the candidates will have to focus on the same issues at the same time, giving voters a chance to compare their choices before heading into the polls on November 8th.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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