The 11 Democrats running to replace Rep. Carol Shea-Porter in the 1st Congressional District tried their best to stand out during a televised debate Wednesday, using their fleeting time on stage to prove to voters that they’re the most progressive candidate and best able to take on President Donald Trump’s agenda.
There were no fireworks during the hour-long WMUR debate, the only televised debate of this race. Direct attacks were few and far between, a contrast to the growing tension that appeared during the many Democratic Party-sponsored forums candidates participated in around the district.
Instead, candidates stuck mostly to issues like health care reform, gun control, and whether Rep. Nancy Pelosi should remain the Democratic leader of the House of Representatives.
Click play below to hear NHPR’s Lauren Chooljian discuss the Wednesday night debate with Morning Edition host Rick Ganley.
Off the debate stage, many of the Democratic candidates have made pointed attacks on the two supposed front runners: Maura Sullivan and Executive Councilor Chris Pappas. Both are leading in the few polls that have been released, and Sullivan has raised far more money than any of her opponents. But Wednesday night, candidates kept the conversation tame and stuck mostly to the questions directed at them by a panel of reporters.
Eight of the candidates said they support a single-payer healthcare system: Levi Sanders, Rep. Mindi Messmer, Paul Cardinal, Deaglan McEachern, Lincoln Soldati, Rep. Mark MacKenzie, Terence O’Rourke, and William Martin. Naomi Andrews said she supports “allowing people of any age to opt in to buy in to Medicare.”
Pappas and Sullivan meanwhile stated instead that they would fight for “universal” health care coverage.
Candidates were split on whether or not Pelosi should become Speaker in the House of Representatives if Democrats win back the majority.
Martin, McEachern, Messmer, O’Rourke, Sanders and Sullivan all said they’d like to see new leadership in the Democratic party.
Pappas, Cardinal and Andrews said it was too early to have a discussion about leadership. Soldati said he’d consider supporting Pelosi if she were willing to make a single payer healthcare system a priority.
Only MacKenzie came out in strong support of Pelosi, saying she “has a history...of fighting for and defending working people in this country.”
Two memorable exchanges occurred during the lightning round portions of the debate. Candidates were asked if elected, which of their opponents would they choose to be their chief of staff. Probably unsurprisingly, since she’s done the job before, four candidates said they would choose Andrews. Andrews, for her part, chose Pappas. Two candidates chose Soldati, while Sanders choose Sullivan and O’Rourke picked McEachern.
When asked if they’d identify themselves as a “moderate” or “progressive,” nearly every one of the eleven candidates said they were a progressive. O’Rourke was the only one with a different answer: “FDR liberal.” Later, candidates who were supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders presidential campaign grumbled that Sullivan and Pappas shouldn’t be considered progressives since they don’t support a “Medicare for All” style healthcare system.
While the debate itself may not have been heated, outside the studio, the Sullivan and Pappas campaigns were both on the attack over a campaign mailer from the Sullivan campaign. The mailer includes a full page picture of an X-ray that shows a body from the pelvis up, and it says that Pappas doesn’t have a “backbone.”
Pappas supporters called the mailer homophobic. State Senator David Watters sent a statement to reporters saying there is “no place for the type of dirty repugnant politics Maura Sullivan is engaging in with her dog-whistle attacks.”
This back and forth didn't come up in the debate Wednesday night, but candidates were invited to hold mini press conferences after the debate. It was there that Pappas told reporters there that the ad was "beyond the pale."
“As someone who grew up gay, you grow up questioning your place in the community, whether or not you’d be accepted, you feel marginalized and you grow a strong backbone as a result,” Pappas said.
Sullivan was the only candidate who did not hold a press conference after the debate. In a statement, her campaign manager Whitney Larsen said that Pappas “has been attacking Maura Sullivan for months, either directly on his website, indirectly in his TV ads and now in direct mail.”
The Pappas campaign also had a mailer this week attacking Sullivan for her out of state fundraising.