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Things Get Testy, And Personal, In Final Days Of 1st District Congressional Race

Mowers and Pappas

Campaigns for New Hampshire’s 1st Congressional Distict seat tend to get testy. It’s among the most closely divided districts in the nation, swinging back and forth between Democrats and Republicans nearly every two years for more than a decade.

This year is no different.

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NHPR’s Senior Political Reporter Josh Rogers joined All Things Considered host Peter Biello to talk about the state of the race.

Note: The following transcript was machine-generated, and contains portions of the interview that were edited out of the broadcast version for time.

Peter Biello: So, New Hampshire's District 1 may be the epitome of a swing district. Tell us more about the political dynamics of the district.

Josh Rogers: The district has ping-ponged back and forth between the parties for some time. In 2018, Democrat Chris Pappas won the district. In 2016, the district, though, backed President Trump for president over Hillary Clinton. And that fact is probably one reason why Republican challenger Matt Mowers is in this race.

It's a district where Trump-style Republicanism can get you elected. Matt Mowers worked for Trump in 2016 and then join the administration, and he's leveraged his ties to the president to the effect of an early endorsement in this race.

The flip side of that, on the Democratic side, is the belief that Chris Pappas has shown he's a good fit for the 1st Congressional District by getting elected in the first place. Obviously, he's also got a long political resume: state rep, Executive Council, and a reputation, politically and personality-wise, as being moderate.

He's also popular with liberals: he's the first openly gay person to get elected to Congress in New Hampshire. He's got strong roots in Manchester as well. And when he got elected, plenty of Democrats assumed, maybe correctly, that he's capable of holding on to the seat. Matt Mowers is certainly working hard to dislodge him. And it's really turning out to be probably the hardest fought race on the ballot in New Hampshire this year.

Peter Biello: So where are we now?

Josh Rogers: Well, I think it's fair to say that Chris Pappas in many ways has been running the kind of race a first term incumbent runs: really focusing on what he sees as district needs. That's things like coronavirus relief, healthcare, his work on veterans' issues, which, you know, is certainly fine. But there's also the reality that as a first term member of Congress, you really don't have a heck of a lot of opportunity to claim legislative accomplishments of your own or really pitch yourself as independent of your party leadership.

First-term members in both parties really are under a great deal of pressure to toe the party line, and especially in this current environment. But by and large, the Pappas we're seeing on the campaign trail now is pretty similar to the one voters saw two years ago. But as the incumbent, you do have to answer - fairly or not - for what happens in D.C. on your watch. And that's what Matt Mowers has been trying to make Chris Pappas do, quite aggressively. His goal is basically to render Chris Pappas unfit in the eyes of voters.

Peter Biello: And we saw some of this in this race's lone televised debate last week, didn't we?

Josh Rogers: All debate long, Matt Mowers attempted to deride Chris Pappas as basically having gone D.C., most dramatically during an exchange over lobbying. Matt Mowers has worked as a consultant for, among other entities, drug companies since he left the Trump administration. Chris Pappas invoked that work. And then Mowers turned, I guess you could call it, a more personalized attack on Pappas. Why don't we listen to the tape, Chris Pappas speaks first:

Chris Pappas (at WMUR Debate): "Look, you're the one who's been paid by pharmaceutical companies and D.C. special interests after you left the Trump administration..."

Matt Mowers (at WMUR debate): "That's not true. The fact matter is that you've been doing the bidding for a bunch of corporate special interests in D.C..."

Chris Pappas (at WMUR Debate): "That is not true - "

Matt Mowers (at WMUR debate): "...that you're dating a corporate lobbyist."

Chris Pappas (at WMUR Debate): "That is not true, Matt."

Matt Mowers (at WMUR debate): "You know, the fact of the matter is you never disclosed it."

Peter Biello: So, that was in last week's debate on WMUR. Plenty of claims there, sometimes hard to understand. They're talking over each other. So what is the truth there?

Josh Rogers: Well, on the Matt Mowers front, it's true. He's worked for drug companies since leaving the Trump administration. On the Pappas front, it's true that he's been in a relationship with somebody who did work as a D.C. lobbyist for Amazon. Where Mowers's accusations towards Pappas get shakier is over whether Congressman Pappas violated any rules by having that relationship.

Mowers has been asked repeatedly to cite any specific violation he believes Pappas committed, and he hasn't been able to come up with one.  His general claim is that Pappas should have disclosed this tie to a lobbyist who apparently isn't a lobbyist anymore. And while this charge is quite specific in general, he's alleging that Pappas isn't being honest with voters, that he's essentially corrupt.

The Democratic Party was quick to claim that raising Pappas's personal life potentially had a homophobic element to it. Mowers and his allies, including some gay Republicans, have said that's not the case, that this is an issue of transparency.

Whatever the case may be, though, this line of attack clearly hit a nerve with Pappas. And it was quite an aggressive move by Mowers. But if you do step back, it is consistent with Mowers's M.O. really all election long, trying to take what could be seen as an advantage for Pappas and turn it into a liability.

Peter Biello: What do you mean by that?

Josh Rogers: Chris Pappas is the guy with deep roots in Manchester, with strong ties to local business interests, but, according to Matt Mowers, he sold out to D.C. in his two years in Washington. Mowers has lined up Republican businessmen who were part of a "Republicans for Pappas" list two years ago who now back Mowers. And they've bolstered that argument on Mowers' behalf.

But a good deal of this is very brazen, considering Mowers's own background. He essentially moved to New Hampshire a few years ago to further his own political career. He rents in New Hampshire, and owns a home in DC. His income outside of politics comes from corporate consulting jobs that he might not have had he not worked in the Trump administration.

But none of that has stopped him from claiming that he, not Pappas, is more in touch with the needs of the people of the district.

Peter Biello: And what is the Pappas campaign's response been to all this?

Josh Rogers: As I mentioned, allegations of homophobia when it comes to the invocation of his relationship with the Amazon lobbyist. Lately they've also called attention to another moment from that WMUR debate. Why don't we take a listen to that:

WMUR Moderator: "Congressman Pappas, is the Confederate battle flag a symbol of racism, yes or no?"

Chris Pappas (at WMUR Debate): "Yes."

WMUR Moderator: "Mr. Mowers?"

Matt Mowers (at WMUR debate): "No."

Josh Rogers: Pappas's campaign manager has cited this moment as proof, in his words, that Mowers had gone "full Proud Boy." Make of that what you will. But there's certainly no reason to expect the tone of this race to get much friendlier between now and Tuesday.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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