Denise Bowdidge would like it to be known that she is a big fan of President Donald Trump.
“He’s not afraid, he’s a man of strength and encouragement and hope for people for the future,” she told an NHPR reporter one August afternoon.
Those same feelings propelled her to drive across the 1st Congressional District, from her home in Bedford, to Portsmouth, where Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, was in town to endorse Republican Eddie Edwards.
At the time, Edwards was locked in a heated primary battle with opponent Andy Sanborn, and he was courting Trump supporters hard.
“The president is doing one hell of a job in Washington,” Edwards said. “One hell of a job.”
He stood at the podium, looking out on a crowd full of alumni from the Trump campaign in New Hampshire, including Bowdidge. Giuliani stood at his left.
“Let me explain something to you: The president won CD 1. I’m aligning myself with the voters of this district and our president. They want a conservative voice in congress,” Edwards said, to cheers from the audience.
Bowdidge said she didn’t know Edwards before he launched his campaign, but she liked what she heard -- Edwards seemed to share Trump’s vision for the country: “I enjoy his America First policies, very similar to Mr. Trump.”
Support from voters like Bowdidge helped Edwards clinch the Republican primary last month. But now, it’s nearly November, and to beat his Democratic opponent, Chris Pappas, Edwards needs not just Trump’s base, but also the many voters in this notorious swing district who aren’t closely aligned with a political party. And the balance he has to strike—to please both those constituencies—is even tougher for Edwards than it’s been for candidates in the past.
Midterm elections have historically been uphill battles for candidates in the same political party as a first-term president. But this year, Trump is making that hill a bit steeper, especially in New Hampshire.
Trump’s job approval rating among independents here has been soft. The latest Saint Anselm poll says just 33 percent of independents -- or “undeclared” voters -- think the country is going in the right direction.
Nearly 40 percent of voters in the 1st district are registered as undeclared. That number doesn’t capture the many voters, like Dan Fortin of Bedford, who swing back and forth between parties and vote across the ballot.
While waiting to hear Senator Jeff Flake speak at Saint Anselm College recently, Fortin seemed torn on who he’d be supporting for Congress.
“That’s a hard one,” Fortin said. “I know Eddie Edwards, I’ve met him and I know him, he’s definitely a man of strong convictions and integrity. But Chris Pappas is a smart young man and I went to high school with his father.”
One thing Fortin does know: He’s not a fan of President Trump. So, the more enthusiastic Edwards is about President Trump, the less likely Fortin is to vote for him.
“I don’t like the callousness, and I don’t know how you describe it but the behaviors, I’m not crazy about,” Fortin said. “If a candidate came up and approached me, I’d first ask him who they voted for in the last presidential election, and I have to admit that would influence me in some ways.”
NHPR also spoke with many 1st district Republicans for this story, who admitted privately that they’re feeling discouraged or politically lost these days, mainly because of the president.
Republican strategist Jim Merrill, who worked on the presidential campaigns of Marco Rubio and Mitt Romney, said he’s seen a lot of Manchester yards with signs for both Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, and Chris Pappas, Edwards’ Democratic opponent.
“More than a few. And that sends a message,” he said.
Merrill said Pappas is more appealing to moderate and center right voters than past Democratic candidates.
“His standing in the business community, I think allows him to speak to Republicans in a way that Carol Shea-Porter never could,” Merrill said.
Pappas co-owns the popular Puritan Backroom restaurant in Manchester, and he’s a member of the Executive Council. Merrill said that background combined with what he calls Pappas’ more “measured” approach makes it easier for conflicted Republicans to try something different this election cycle.
Edwards’ solution to this balancing act, of courting undecided voters, but still keeping a strong hold on his base, is by talking a lot about changing the country’s political culture. He often promotes the idea of term limits, he bemoans career politicians and talks often about integrity.
And when he’s asked about President Trump, he still is open about his support and belief in “America First,” but he also pivots, talking at length about how divisive politics have become.
“If this becomes our manner in engaging one another [and] governance, what happens to the next president? We won’t be able to govern. If you’re not happy with results, then you have to vote and get out and figure out a way to bring the country together,” Edwards said last week at a town hall meeting in Meredith.
Dan Murray of Wolfeboro was at that event, listening closely to Edwards’ answer about Trump. Murray is a Trump supporter, and he believes some Republicans are trying to undermine the president.
"I’m hoping we can elect officials in this cycle that will support the president and increase his ability to make actual changes in policy,” Murray said.
When told about that August day during the primary with Rudy Giuliani, and how enthusiastic Edwards was then about the president -- “one hell of a job” and all that -- Murray took a deep breath and said he’s cutting Edwards some slack.
“There’s a dangerous wire you have to walk,” Murray said. “I try to understand that candidate Edwards is trying not to alienate voters by being too enthusiastic about President Trump, because if he doesn’t get [to Washington], he won’t be able to help to support the president’s efforts at all.
Murray said that’s why he came out to Meredith that evening. It’s why he donated to Edwards’ campaign. It’s why he’s working the phones for him.
Because if Edwards is going to have a shot at winning this election, Murray thinks he’s going to need some extra help walking that wire.