Pappas vs. Leavitt race in NH for US House looks close. What could make the difference?


Chris Pappas, left, and Karoline Leavitt, right

Steven Porter, GSNC

Analysts don’t agree on what’s likely to happen when voters in New Hampshire’s 1st Congressional District decide Nov. 8 who will represent them for the next two years.

Some say the latest polls show Democratic incumbent Rep. Chris Pappas still appears to have a slight edge over Republican challenger Karoline Leavitt. Others say he’s lost that edge and this race is a toss-up or even leaning in Leavitt’s favor.

Incumbents may often enjoy a competitive advantage when they seek reelection, but voters in this notably swingy district have a track record of kicking their U.S. representatives to the curb. In the past 10 cycles, incumbents have sought reelection seven times. In five of those races, the incumbent lost.

Leavitt is hoping to make Pappas the sixth.

RealClearPolitics recently moved this race from “toss-up” to “leans GOP,” suggesting Leavitt could soon succeed in replacing Pappas and helping Republicans reclaim a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. Leavitt’s supporters credit her rise to the direct contrast she’s drawn between herself and the incumbent.

“Every day it becomes more clear that voters aren’t buying what Chris Pappas is selling,” Leavitt spokesman Chris D’Anna said in a statement celebrating the RealClearPolitics news.

Pappas contends, however, that his challenger has relied on “the big national attack lines” to run a campaign that’s more style than substance.

What’s top of mind for voters

Nationwide polling suggests Republicans across the board have gained momentum in the past month, as worries over the economy and inflation persist. The trend could be helping Leavitt as well.

After asking likely New Hampshire voters late last month about the issues most important to determining how they’ll vote, pollsters with the Saint Anselm College Survey Center concluded Leavitt’s odds of winning would improve if voters focus on the economy and President Joe Biden, while Pappas would likely win if voters focus on former President Donald Trump and abortion.

When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion this year, Leavitt welcomed the decision. “I am a pro-life Republican, and I will always vote that way when I’m elected to Congress,” she said in May, after the court’s draft opinion was leaked.

Citing those comments and others, Pappas has argued Leavitt would support a national abortion ban, but Leavitt denies that claim and says she’ll defer to state lawmakers on abortion policy.

Leavitt, meanwhile, has sought to portray Pappas as lockstep with Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, blaming Democrats for the inflationary pressures pinching American pocketbooks.

As the final days of this campaign season tick away, both Pappas and Leavitt have shown they know the outcome may very well hinge on how well they make their case to voters at face-to-face events, formal debates and media interviews with what little time remains.

Problem-solving or purely politics?

In an interview, Pappas said Leavitt has plenty of rhetoric but lacks solutions.

“I think her candidacy reflects something we’ve seen a lot of lately in politics, and frankly it’s folks who view politics as a performance art and not as a means to get things done,” he said.

“I think it’s really important that people look at what we’ve been doing during our professional lives to help solve problems for New Hampshire,” he added. “I’ll stack my record of bipartisan problem-solving up against her extreme agenda any day of the week.”

A spokesperson for Leavitt didn’t respond to an interview request.

Elliot Gault, executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Party, credited Leavitt’s success in the primary and on the general election campaign trail so far to her hard work and ability to “articulate a message of change.” This race is a referendum on Pappas’ voting record, he said.

That voting record has been a major feature not only of stump speeches and paid ads but also of the debates Pappas and Leavitt have held so far.

At their first debate, which the Mt. Washington Valley Economic Council held Oct. 20 in Conway, Leavitt took Pappas to task for his support of Democrats’ “spending sprees” and the Inflation Reduction Act, which she argues will just make inflation worse.

Pappas defended his votes, arguing that the Inflation Reduction Act will lower the federal deficit by $1.9 trillion over the next 20 years, as estimated by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. The law will also deliver savings to Americans in the next few years through energy rebates and tax credits and lower costs for health care and prescription drugs, he said.

When she was asked about her plan to reduce deficit spending, Leavitt suggested cuts to foreign aid.

At their second debate, which the Greater Manchester Chamber hosted Oct. 25, Pappas said Leavitt doesn’t have any room to criticize Democrats for their spending in 2022 after she supported the Trump administration as it grew the national debt by nearly $8 trillion.

Their barbs ventured beyond policy disputes. Leavitt said Pappas isn’t a bipartisan problem-solver but a “partisan problem-creator.” Pappas said Leavitt is “one of the most radical candidates” ever nominated for public office in New Hampshire. He noted that she has claimed the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

Leavitt is among hundreds of GOP nominees nationwide who have falsely claimed that Trump won. More recently, though, she said during a WMUR forum that Biden is “the legitimate president” because his victory was certified as the result.

Trump endorsed Leavitt the day after RealClearPolitics said this contest is tilting in her favor.

Final debate, then decision time

Despite acknowledging the possibility that he could lose, Pappas said he’s confident his constituents will make the right choice.

“I think the voters of New Hampshire are smart. They’re going to be able to weigh our records, our ideas and decide who’s the best fit for New Hampshire,” he said. “And I’m going to accept the result no matter what it is.”

Pappas, 42, is seeking a third term in Congress. He served previously in the New Hampshire House of Representatives and on the Executive Council.

Leavitt, 25, worked as an assistant press secretary in the Trump White House. This would be her first time holding political office.

Pappas and Leavitt’s third and final debate — perhaps their last big shot to motivate voters — will be hosted by WMUR at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 3, just five days before Granite Staters decide between them.

Steven Porter is the founding editor of Granite Memo.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative.  It was edited by Seacoast Online, a partner in the collaborative.