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Democrats Fight to Keep Hold of Newly Won N.H. Senate Seat


All 24 seats in the New Hampshire Senate are on the ballot this year. Republicans currently hold a four seat majority there, but Democrats hope a strong showing at the polls could give them control of the chamber, for the first time in nearly a decade. 

This week, we're checking in on a handful of swing seats in the Senate, places where the outcome on Election Day will be critical to the balance of power in the State House next year.

We'll start in District 16, in the Manchester area, where voters may feel a bit of deju vu. The two candidates faced off just over a year ago here, in a special election.

Incumbent Sen. Kevin Cavanaugh has represented this district for over a year, but he still never knows what to expect when he knocks on a voter’s door.

Canvassing in Hooksett one afternoon, with a pack of fliers in hand, he knocks on the door of one voter, marked "undeclared" on his list.

A man opens the door.

"Hello, how are you? I’m Kevin Cavanaugh, I’m running for re-election for State Senate."


"Yeah, Kevin," the man replies.


"Just wanted to come by and say hello and ask you for your support," Cavanaugh says. "I’d really appreciate it."


The man doesn't miss a beat.

"Yup, you got it," he says.

In this Republican-leaning town, a committed voter is a victory for a Democrat like Cavanaugh.

"That’s a good one," Cavanaugh laughs as he strides back to the street.

Cavanaugh thinks of himself as a political newcomer. He’s been a telephone lineworker for 33 years and a Manchester Alderman for two. He ran for State Senate in a 2017 special election on a pro-union and public education platform.

Credit Sarah Gibson for NHPR
State Senator Kevin Cavanaugh won in a special election in 2017 after the sudden death of Democrat Scott McGilvray.

He says his year there has been a crash course in how New Hampshire politics work, with help from senior Senators on both sides of the aisle.

"It’s a civics lesson to me, it really is," he says. "Sitting through the session, seeing the process, and being a part of that - definitely a learning experience. I mean for one year, I think it’s just scratching the surface."

Just scratching the surface means Cavanaugh doesn’t have a ton of legislative victories to tout yet. So he sticks to the message that helped him get elected the first time: fighting for the working class.

"I’ve been a blue-collar worker my entire life," he says. "That perspective is a little more unique - there’s doctors and attorneys that serve in the Senate, and they’re wonderful. But I can relate to a lot of people who have been one injury away to not knowing whether they can support their family and that’s difficult."

It’s not just his working class roots fueling Cavanaugh. The state Democratic Party sees District 16 as essential if it’s going to win a Senate majority in November, and they’re helping Cavanaugh with volunteers and money.

The state Republican Party is focused on this race too, with candidate David Boutin.


A retired town planner from Hooksett, Boutin had this Senate seat for seven years.


He lost to Cavanaugh last election. Now he's running again, on a platform of protecting taxpayers and improving juvenile mental health. Boutin’s playbook is similar to Cavanaugh’s: go door to door and target undecided voters.


With independents making up a third of registered voters, that means a lot of doors.



"How are you today?" he asks a man standing outside a ranch house in Manchester.


"I’m great," the man responds.

"So listen, I’m David Boutin. I’m running for State Senate," Boutin says. "So any particular issues that are of concern to you?"


The man says no.


"Besides pay, health benefits, vacation?" Boutin laughs.


"No, I’m mean that’s all okay, that’s all good," the man says. "Where I stand, I’m happy."

A happy voter- Both Boutin and Cavanaugh say they’re meeting a lot of these.

Credit Paige Sutherland/NHPR
Republican candidate David Boutin originally won his Senate seat in a special election in 2009. He served until 2017.

Even with concerns about the opioid epidemic and education, many voters are telling them New Hampshire is on the right track.

"What they’re voting for is a continuation of what they have seen over the last two or three years," Boutin says.

Both candidates want to take credit for those years.


Cavanaugh can say: if you like where we’re headed, send me back to Concord.

Boutin can say: It's thanks to Republicans that we have this great economy, so vote for a fiscal conservative.

And Boutin is stressing this conservative part.

"I’m a fiscal and social conservative," he says. "I’m pro life, I’m pro 2nd amendment. I mean the one issue where I differ with the Republican Party is on right to work.

Boutin voted against an anti-union "Right to Work" bill and for medicaid expansion while in the Senate. His willingness - even if rare - to buck the party line made him a target of conservative activists.

"There tends to be a clear bright line," Boutin says. "You’re either on one side of that line or you’re on the other. If you put your big toe over to the other side of the line, then you’re all the way over the other way."

With more registered Republicans than Democrats in District 16, Boutin is trying to remind conservatives he’s on the right side of this line.

But the last two elections have gone to Democrats, which could bode well for Cavanaugh in November.



Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.
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