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Fearing 'Bad Blood' in Primary, N.H. Democratic Leaders Tell Candidates to Play Nice

Allegra Boverman for NHPR

Earlier this summer, eight Democratic candidates sat shoulder to shoulder before about 70 voters in the library of Kennett Middle School in Conway.

But before they could even introduce themselves to the voters in the audience, New Hampshire

Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley had a special request: Play nice, please.

“Folks, we only have eight weeks between the primary and general election,” Buckley said, referring to the September 11th primary and November general election. “And if you all get on your Facebook pages and your Twitter accounts and start thinking the best way you can help your candidate is to rip the living stuffing out of somebody else, you’re only creating bad blood.”

Sara Plourde

This is an election year where dissatisfaction with President Donald Trump is expected to pay off at the ballot box for Democrats. There’s a lot of talk about a potential “blue wave” that could wipe out Republicans and put Democrats in control of Congress.

But party leaders in New Hampshire are worried if 1st Congressional District candidates spend too much time fighting each other, they’ll squander that opportunity. And so they’re asking voters and candidates to try and stay positive through the general election in November.

This tactic has popped up in a few ways during the long primary season. A few Sundays ago, state Senator Martha Fuller Clark, the vice chair of the party, sent an email to reporters late at night, expressing displeasure that Democrats are attacking each other for raising money outside of New Hampshire.

Buckley sees this election cycle as especially unique. He’s led the state party for over 15 years, and in that role he’s worked to limit previous Democratic primaries.

But this year, in the 1st Congressional District, the field is the largest it’s ever been. And since the majority of Democrats running are first-time candidates, Buckley said he’s had to step in more, as “there are some things that they might intuitively not know.”

For Buckley, a lot of this anxiety can be traced back to a holiday party he attended after the 1996 Senate race, when Democrat Dick Swett narrowly lost to Republican Bob Smith. The gathering, as he recalled, was full of Democrats, and after a few drinks, Buckley found out that none of them voted in the general election, because they supported Swett’s opponent, John Rauh, in the contentious Democratic primary.

“It would be [a] shame that something somebody said during the course of this campaign would cause somebody else not to vote for the nominee,” Buckley said. “So we work very hard to make sure that we’re all one big happy family.”

But that family has seen its share of feuds lately. State Rep. Renny Cushing was in the thick of one of those fights. Cushing supported Sen. Bernie Sanders' run in the Democratic presidential primary in 2016, and he said he still feels some leftover tension from that race.

“I think there’s a perception that the entire political establishment of the Democratic Party in the state of New Hampshire backed Hillary Clinton and they were tone deaf to the mood of the populace and there’s a bit of resentment for that,” Cushing said.  

Regardless of the source, if Buckley hears about negative comments, he said he will call candidates or supporters and kindly ask them to knock it off.

Terence O’Rourke, a Democrat running for the 1st District seat, said he’s been on the other end of that call, and finds the tactic “ridiculous.”

“I’m an adult, I don’t need him to tell me how to run my campaign or run my life,” O’Rourke said.  

O’Rourke and his supporters have called out another 1st District candidate Maura Sullivan on Twitter for, among other things, recently moving to the state. But for O’Rourke, the bigger issue is this idea of staying positive in the primary.

“Primaries are supposed to be the proving grounds, with the hope that the strongest candidate for the general election emerges. The first punch you take shouldn’t be on September 12th from the Republican candidate,” he said.

And other Democrats seem to share this sentiment, to varying degrees. Some really want to hash things out, and let the voters use the primary to decide how far to the left the party should go. Others, like Chris Pappas, another 1st District candidate, are trying to find a balance between being positive but still highlighting differences.

Pappas’ campaign also recently targeted Sullivan, by pointing out how much money she raises from corporate donors outside New Hampshire.

“At the end of the day, people of this district deserve a representative who is going to stand up for them, and they should have no question about whose bidding they’re going to be doing in Washington, DC,” Pappas said.

Campaigns often tend to get more heated as election day gets closer, but the one thing uniting all these candidates is a promise to work against President Donald Trump.

And in a district that voted for Trump two years ago, his presence will loom large in many ways.


Lauren is a Senior Reporter/Producer for NHPR's narrative news unit, Document.

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