All this week we’ve been checking in on a handful of competitive seats in the New Hampshire Senate, places where the outcome on Election Day could shift the balance of power in the State House next year.
In District 8, two women are competing to represent 24 mostly rural towns west of Concord. Jenn Alford-Teaster, a Democrat and first-time candidate, is challenging incumbent Ruth Ward, a Republican who’s seeking her second term.
On a cold a rainy Saturday Senator Ward visits the Star Lake Tree Farm in Springfield. She’s here at the northern end of District 8 to get a tour of the operations.
“I like to see land preserved,” Ward says in a patch of damp forest, bordered by grazing land for cattle. “We have so much right now and if we build up on everything, there’s not going to be much to look at later on.”
Ward, who was born to Swedish parents and came to the U.S. in 1959, is here for an open day of demonstrations on the farm. But it’s also a place where she can chat with voters and see one of her policy priorities in action. She was a big supporter of the so-called biomass bill this session, which requires utilities to buy more energy from wood-burning power plants.
“And that is a big concern to many of the people with tree farms,” Wards says.
During a pause in a demo, where an operator uses a massive machine to cut down a tree, Ward, in white sneakers, dashes through thick mud to talk with the logger who’s climbed out of the harvesting machine. She wants the public to understand the importance of the timber industry, which has an impact on the economy and jobs in this rural district.
“If you sort of see and hear what they’re doing, I think you have a better understanding for why you’re doing it,” Ward says.
Ward was able to work across the aisle on the biomass bill, but on other issues, she’s largely stuck to the Republican line. One particularly controversial measure she supported in the last legislative session would have allowed taxpayer dollars to follow students outside of the public school system. The so-called school choice bill died in the House. It’s an idea conservatives have traditionally supported and Democrats have criticized, claiming it would weaken public schools.
“I think that it’s hard for the people involved in the public schools and as a teaching occupation to think that there may be a time when education has to be done in a different way,” says Ward.
Education has become a central issue in this state senate campaign, for both Ward and her Democratic challenger, Jenn Alford-Teaster. During a quick break from a long day of canvassing, Alford-Teaster explains one of her biggest contrasts with Ward is on the issue of school choice.
“One, it would take necessary funding away from public education, which is already struggling,” Alford-Teaster says. “And I strongly believe that that strong public education set me up so when I did go to college, I excelled in college.”
Alford-Teaster is 40 years younger than Ward and often talks about her background on the campaign trail. Raised in New Hampshire by a single mother who worked minimum wage jobs, she’s proud of the fact that she worked her way through several degrees and now enjoys a comfortable life as a researcher at Dartmouth. She wants to see that same path to success available to all Granite Staters.
“I think, on the surface, New Hampshire looks great, we have the third-lowest unemployment in the country,” says Alford-Teaster. “Well, that’s because we have people working two and three jobs to make ends meet.”
Alford-Teaster heads out to her truck so she can continue canvassing. She uses the Democrats’ map-based campaigning app of choice, which lets candidates know which doors to hit.
It leads Alford-Teaster and campaign manager Emily Guare down some rough dirt roads and gets them turned around a few times.
But it also leads them to the door of the Sopko family, who have recently moved in. Amelia Sopko has a blunt message for the candidate.
“I’m going to be completely honest, I’ve never voted,” Sopko says. “I’m 24 and I’m kind of a part of this like, mindset of like, well, it sucks. Stuff right now really sucks in government and politics. I don’t think I’m the only twenty-something that feels that way right now.”
Alford-Teaster’s message of a strong public education system seems to sit well with Sopko, who works with developmentally disabled children.
Democrats are optimistic they can flip this Senate seat in the upcoming election, which Ward won by a slim margin in 2016. But in a district that hasn’t elected a Democrat in almost two decades, Alford-Teaster knows she’ll need to motivate voters like the Sopkos who don’t feel connected to politics. Meanwhile, Ward will have to convince the same voters that her record is a good fit for another round.