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In N.H.'s 1st Congressional District, Crowded Pack of Democrats Races to Finish Line

Allegra Boverman for NHPR
Eleven Democrats are vying for their party's nomination this year in the race for New Hampshire's 1st Congressional District.

Voters in New Hampshire's 1st Congressional District have less than a week to choose from the pack of candidates running to replace retiring Rep. Carol Shea-Porter.

As with any election, candidates are racing around the state to knock on doors and shake as many hands as possible. But this mad dash to the finish is especially frantic for the 11 Democrats running for the seat, as the sheer number of candidates might cause results to split in interesting ways.

The frenzy of these closing days comes after months of campaigning. Many campaign staffers and volunteers told NHPR they spent much of the summer trying to track down interested voters. New Hampshire holds one of the latest primary elections in the country, and so for most of the campaign season, voters have been out of town or in summer mode. Many campaigns recalled knocking on empty houses or trying to hand off fliers to a family scrambling off to soccer practice.

Sara Plourde

And when they did get voters on the phone, many said they found that voters weren't spending their summer thinking about the congressional primary.

"You know you make phone calls, they say, 'Oh, that’s okay honey, I always vote Democrat.' It’s like right, but this is a primary, there’s 10 or 11 Democrats, "said Elizabeth Jones, a volunteer for Executive Councilor Chris Pappas' campaign.  "I mean, what is it you’re not getting about what a primary is?"

But now that Labor Day has come and gone, and New Hampshire kids are back in school, many Democratic campaigns said they’re getting a lot more inquiries from voters and are getting more of their phone calls answered.

And many of them are focusing their attention on a few specific areas.

Scroll down for a map of past election results for CD 1

The 1st Congressional District stretches from the southeastern corner of the state over to Manchester and reaches north into the White Mountains, through Conway and up to Jackson. Within that area, many campaigns said in the final days, they have their eyes set on the Seacoast and Manchester. Both are big Democratic strongholds, but they're also home -- or close to home -- to the majority of CD1 Democratic candidates. Maura Sullivan, Deaglan McEachern, State Rep. Mindi Messmer, Lincoln Soldati all live on the Seacoast. Two others, Naomi Andrews and Terence O'Rourke, live in towns in Rockingham County. Meanwhile,  Pappas, Rep. Mark MacKenzie and William Martin have roots in Manchester, creating a lot of overlap in some of the most populated areas in the district.

Levi Sanders, son of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, actually lives in the 2nd Congressional District, in Claremont, while Paul Cardinal lives in Merrimack.

Dante Scala, political science professor at University of New Hampshire, said he thinks Pappas will do well in the Manchester-area because he's represented it as an executive councilor for several years. But Scala also thinks there could be room for other candidates to poke holes.

"It’s highly unlikely you’re gonna win Manchester over Chris Pappas, but if you can keep the margins within reach, the other half of the challenge is: How do you break out of the Seacoast and find a way to win a large portion of that vote," he said.

But candidates said they're not ignoring the northern parts of the district, where voters sometimes complain of being last on a campaign's canvassing list. MacKenzie said he believes the race will be won in parts of Belknap and Carroll counties, so the former state AFL-CIO president recently sent volunteers to canvas there.

Those two counties may not seem like they'd carry a ton of votes, especially when compared to some of the bigger cities in the district like Manchester, Rochester or Dover. But with 11 candidates, everyone is going to get something. And as Scala sees it, all those somethings are gonna add up and take away from the overall vote share.

When Shea-Porter first won the Democratic primary in 2006, she followed a similar geographical path to victory against opponent Jim Craig. Craig, a House member from Manchester, won big in that city. But Shea-Porter racked up big wins on the Seacoast and in the northern part of the district.

Map: The Geography of Votes in New Hampshire's 1st Congressional District

New Hampshire's 1st Congressional District, which stretches from Manchester to the Seacoast and up through the Lakes Region, includes several distinct population centers. As the results from the 2006 Democratic primary show, a candidate can dominate the vote in one of those regions, while failing to win the district as a whole. That year, like this, featured a crowded field of Democrats. Jim Craig won Manchester overwhemingly, but Carol Shea-Porter countered that with solid wins in Seacoast communities, ensuring her a victory on Primary Day.

Chart: Losing Manchester, But Winning the District

But of course, these calculations all depend on voter turnout. There may be more engagement among Democrats in the age of Trump, but there isn't a major Senate race at the top of the ticket this year, which often helps drive voters to the polls.

Because of the historic number of primary candidates this time around, it’s hard to find apples to apples comparison about turnout from past elections. One number people often cite is 32,000 -- the number of Democratic ballots cast for Shea-Porter in the 2016 primary. And with 11 candidates, if turnout remains in that ballpark, it's entirely possible that a winner could go home with just 20 to 30 percent of the vote.

The Soldati campaign said they’re focusing a lot of their last minute efforts on Strafford County, in part because it makes up 20 percent of the district.  Soldati is well known there, as he was elected to nine terms as Strafford County Attorney, so his campaign said they figure even if they don't win the whole county, they could still make a solid dent.

All 11 candidates are scheduled to appear on WMUR on Wednesday for their only televised debate before the primary.

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