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In Dems' Midterm of 'Resist,' Congresswoman Kuster Plays to Both Parties

This midterm election, Democrats across the country have high hopes for a blue wave. Many are tapping into voters’ frustrations with President Donald Trump. But in New Hampshire’s 2nd Congressional District, Democratic Congresswoman Annie Kuster is taking a different approach.

A lot of voters on the left are angry this year. Maybe you’ve heard. The #resist movement, protests in restaurants, calls for the president to be impeached.

Some Democrats running for Congress are going right at that feeling in their campaign messaging this midterm. Deb Haaland, a Democrat running in New Mexico’s 1st congressional district declares in an ad, “Trump won’t hand us a thing if we ask politely. I’m Deb Haaland and I approve this message because the old way isn’t working. We must be fierce.”

But while some Democrats are looking to get fierce, here in New Hampshire, Kuster is striking a different tone. In her first television ad of the race, Kuster says “the truth is, both parties need to stop playing games and work together on the problems we face.”

Kuster has been consistent on a bipartisan theme, from campaign flyers that talk about her ability to reach across the aisle, to her responses at candidate forums like this one from a few weeks ago.

“I think of it as the New Hampshire way. It’s a very bipartisan district and I’ve tried to work in a bipartisan way.”

Meanwhile, most political watchers agree that the 2nd Congressional District is a safe bet for Democrats this year. The Cook Political Report rates it as “solid Democratic,” and recent polling from UNH and Saint Anselm College shows Kuster well ahead of Republican challenger Steve Negron.

So why isn’t Congresswoman Kuster mirroring the fierce talk of some of her fellow Democrats?

One possible reason: the district is not as safe for Democrats as it might seem. That's according to Neil Levesque, director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College.

“It’s definitely not a given. It is definitely a swing district. The reason it’s not a swing district right now is because of Congresswoman Kuster.”

Levesque is someone who knows the 2nd District intimately.

“I spent 13 years driving around the 2nd Congressional District with my boss, then-Congressman Charlie Bass.”

Credit National Atlas of the United States

Republican Charlie Bass was elected to the 2nd District seat six times beginning in the 1990s. Levesque says the playbook that Bass used all those years is the same one Kuster is now reusing as she seeks a fourth term: raise lots of money and run toward the center.

“It was successful then for a Republican and it is successful now for a Democrat.”

It’s a strategy that’s also familiar to Democrat Paul Hodes. He beat Bass for the seat in 2006 and held it until 2010.

Hodes says when he was running in the 2nd District, he didn’t worry too much about firing up the liberal enclaves of Keene, Hanover, and Concord. Instead, he kept an eye on some of the more rural parts of the district.

“We always thought it important to kind of battle to a tie in the more conservative, southern parts of the 2nd CD where there are an awful lot of Republicans but also an awful lot of independents.”

Hodes says that Kuster has been able to successfully replicate this strategy of campaigning as a moderate, because she actually is a moderate.

“I don’t think going as left as she wants is necessarily who Annie is. Annie by nature – she’s running an authentic race in terms of who she is.”

Credit Jason Moon for NHPR
Congresswoman Kuster greets students from Plymouth State University during a campaign event.

There is evidence in Kuster’s record as a lawmaker to back that up. She’s sponsored a number of bills on veterans’ issues and the opioid epidemic that have attracted bipartisan support.

But on the other hand she is still a reliable Democratic vote in the House. According to ProPublica, she votes with her party more than 90 percent of the time.

Still, today’s increasingly hyper-partisan climate can make it hard for a candidate trying to appeal to the center. Take this exchange we had at a recent campaign stop in Plymouth. I asked Kuster about the language from her TV ad mentioned above. I asked if she was worried about alienating some Democratic voters by implying that both parties are to blame for the dysfunction in Washington.

But Kuster insisted that wasn’t her message this campaign season, saying "I don’t talk about both parties being part of the problem,” and "that’s not a line I use.”

For the record, the line from Kuster’s ad is “both parties need to stop playing games.”

Kuster’s answer shows how running as a moderate in today’s climate can put candidates in awkward positions. A position stuck between speaking to the passion of her party, while still appealing to the independent voters who have been playing a big role in deciding who wins this swing district for the last few decades.

Jason Moon is a senior reporter and producer on the Document team. He has created longform narrative podcast series on topics ranging from unsolved murders, to presidential elections, to secret lists of police officers.
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