MANCHESTER, New Hampshire — New Hampshire is even quirkier than you realize.
It’s not just that it has an outsize role in American politics because it holds the first presidential primary. Or that seemingly every other person in the state is an elected official. (Its state House of Representatives has 400 members, making it the third-largest elected legislative body in the English-speaking world after the US House and the UK House of Commons.)
The longtime Republican stronghold has become one of the most tightly contested swing states of the 21st century — in 2016, in a state with a population of 1.3 million, Hillary Clinton won the state by 2,736 votes while Democrat Maggie Hassan bested incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte by 1,017 votes.
But unlike other states that have steadily moved from red to purple in the past half-century, there has been no surge in voters of color in the country’s fourth-whitest state. Even the newcomers, surging up Interstate 93 from Massachusetts, are not exactly Democrats — there was a reason that they left for a state without income or sales tax. There hasn’t been any mass urbanization, either. The state’s biggest city, Manchester, is a former mill town that lacks the urban culture of places like Des Moines, let alone Boston.
The state is deeply fiscally conservative — endorsing an income tax is only slightly less politically toxic than endorsing Putin — and a strong libertarian streak runs through it. Further, in the age of political polarization down educational lines — college-educated voters flock to Democrats and those without degrees break heavily toward the GOP — it is one of the most educated states in the United States. And it’s one of the least religious states in a country where church attendance is a key predictor of partisanship among white voters.
“It is an older, mostly white state that’s very rural, but you have all these college-educated voters who are irreligious, and [these factors] are in conflict with themselves,” veteran Republican operative and current state Rep. Ross Berry told Vox.
But in a state as unusual as New Hampshire, these national trends converge in unusual ways. The Granite State is old and white, similar to GOP-trending states like Iowa and Ohio; but, like Democrat-trending states such as Colorado and Virginia, it is highly educated. With a key Senate race and two competitive House races, the results of these cross currents could determine control of the Senate and the composition of the House majority in Washington for the next two years.
The highest profile campaign in New Hampshire this year is the Senate race, where Hassan is facing a challenge from Republican Don Bolduc, a retired brigadier general from the US Army. Bolduc, who has promoted multiple conspiracy theories about Covid-19 and who has falsely claimed that Trump won the 2020 election, narrowly edged out state Senate President Chuck Morse in the September primary. While national Republicans spent heavily to prop up Morse, national Democrats ran attack ads against him in the primary, hoping Bolduc would win — and be easier for Hassan to beat.
New Hampshire will always be in play in a tight midterm battlefield. But the September 13 primary was the latest in the nation, and the tight window that leaves his campaign, along with Bolduc’s fringe views, have rendered the Republican a distinct underdog.
The marquee House race in the state between two-term incumbent Chris Pappas and Republican challenger Karoline Leavitt is far more competitive, and could be more revealing about the political climate in the Granite State. Pappas, who first won his seat in the 2018 midterms, is a prototypical swing seat Democrat, who has kept a relatively low national profile. In contrast, Leavitt, a former junior staffer in the Trump administration, has frequently appeared on conservative media and insisted that Trump won in 2020.
The First District is perhaps the platonic ideal of a swing district. George W. Bush won it twice, as did Obama, while Trump narrowly won it in 2016 before Biden bested him in 2020. For the better part of the last decade, Democrat Carol Shea-Porter and Republican Frank Guinta switched off holding the district’s congressional seat.
Pappas won the seat in 2018 and fended off a tight challenge in 2020 from Matt Mowers, a veteran Republican operative. Despite working for both Trump’s campaign and administration, Mowers lost his 2022 primary for being too much of a moderate. Leavitt, a 25-year-old who worked for Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) after Trump left office, attacked Mowers’s conservative credentials because he worked for former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s presidential campaign and with coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx in the Trump administration.
If elected, Leavitt would be the youngest woman in Congress in US history by nearly four years. In her primary, she ran a red-meat MAGA campaign, appealing to the voters who gave Trump his first presidential primary victory in 2016, but only won with the help of a third, moderate candidate dividing the vote. As one plugged-in New Hampshire Republican put it, “a percentage of New Hampshire’s Republican primary electorate thinks that they live in Alabama, and when you split the vote,” candidates like Leavitt win.
The general election matchup between Pappas and Leavitt is rated a toss-up by national forecasters.
Leavitt has run a highly nationalized race, drawing campaign appearances from national figures like Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Lauren Boebert, and appearing on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show. On a cool late September day, she held a press conference outside a high school in Manchester to condemn a local judge’s decision to uphold a policy that teachers could not inform parents if their child was identifying as transgender in school. It was a polished performance before a crowd holding signs with slogans like “Moms for Karoline” and “Parents over Politicians.”
Yet it had the feel of a political event that could have happened anywhere in the country. Leavitt came across as a consummate professional. She parried questions from local reporters and greeted attendees with a demeanor that belied her level of experience, as she beat the drum on an issue that resonates with the conservative, Fox News-watching base, but may not necessarily be top of mind with the swing voters who decide New Hampshire elections.
Her opponent, Pappas, appeared that same week at a neighborhood event in South Manchester with a minimal entourage and mingled with voters, chitchatting about mutual acquaintances. Pappas, whose family owns a local restaurant famous for its chicken tenders, spent over a decade in local and state elected office before being elected to Congress in 2018.
He said the GOP’s shift rightward, and toward Trump, helped Democrats in the Granite State. While the state had traditionally leaned Republican, it often elected more establishment figures like Warren Rudman and Judd Gregg. The lone arch right-winger elected statewide in recent decades, two-term Sen. Bob Smith, lost his 2002 primary to John E. Sununu.
“I think the Republican Party here has changed a great deal. ... If you look to the history of New Hampshire, you know, we’ve had a Republican Party that was a pro-choice party. No longer, in terms of the folks you see running for office in New Hampshire,” said Pappas. “And so I think that presents us with an opportunity to appeal to independents and Republicans who feel like their party has moved too far to the right on important kitchen table issues, as well as an issue as fundamental as reproductive rights.”
It’s these issues that candidates are focusing on in the general election, with television ads on abortion and the economy. Even Leavitt, in her first post-primary campaign ad, emphasized inflation rather than offering more red meat for her conservative base.
Operatives in both parties view New Hampshire’s Second District, where incumbent Democrat Annie Kuster is facing off against Republican Bob Burns, as trending toward Republicans in the long term, but are skeptical they will be able to pick it off in 2022. The district, which Cook Political Report lists as “leaning Democratic,” includes the state capital of Concord, the blue-collar North Country, and tie-dyed liberals along the Vermont border.
Although Burns could become competitive if the national environment becomes worse for Democrats, he only eked out a win in the Republican primary after a boost by outside Democratic groups, which saw him as a weak candidate. And with the short window from New Hampshire’s late primary, he’s had little time to raise money and pivot to a general election — and has not gotten significant national support.
Republicans up and down the ticket stand to benefit if fuel prices keep ticking up: Another of New Hampshire’s quirks is that it’s affected by gas prices more acutely than elsewhere. It’s not that Granite Staters drive any more or less than other Americans, but they are disproportionately likely to use home heating oil in a state already plagued by high energy costs for a host of logistical reasons. Berry, the GOP state representative, told Vox that the colder the weather is in October, the colder it will be for Democrats in the voting booth in November.
New Hampshire has for decades maintained its image as a flinty New England holdout, where the accents are still stronger than the Dunkin’ coffee and Yankee thriftiness is still one of the highest forms of virtue. It also is still a state where voters expect — and get — an unusually high level of political engagement.
That expectation isn’t just the result of the quadrennial primary, which has traditionally followed Iowa as the second presidential nominating contest and forced major national figures to carefully court the voters here. It’s fed by the sheer number of electoral offices on the state’s ballot, including state representatives with, on average, 3,300 constituents. Further, all state offices are on the ballot every two years, intensifying the level of political outreach each voter is getting.
“We’re always in election mode,” said Ray Buckley, the longtime chair of the state Democratic Party. “We don’t have the downtime, like some other states, with the four-year terms.”
Unlike other states, there isn’t patronage or a decent salary attached to service in the state legislature. Legislators get paid $100 a year for a session that can seem interminable at times.
The constant churn of politics also helps contribute to a political culture where ticket splitting is a real phenomenon. While the federal races are toss-ups or even Democratic leaning, incumbent Republican Gov. Chris Sununu is handily favored for reelection to a third term. The Trump-skeptical Republican is expected to do well in erstwhile Republican strongholds like the leafy, well-to-do suburban town of Bedford, which has swung heavily to Democrats in recent years. Even in 2020, one of the most fiercely partisan years in American history, both Sununu and incumbent Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen ran significantly ahead of their party’s presidential nominees. (Sununu won by 30 percent and Shaheen won by 15 percent, in a state that Biden won by 7 percent.)
Sununu, a second-generation New Hampshire politician, insisted to reporters that retail politics can still make or break candidates with Granite State voters who expect to see their candidates up close.
Looking ahead to 2024, he said, “you’ll have all these fools come from across the country, on both sides, who spend a lot of money, with big name ID. At the end of the day, none of that matters. You got to go person to person, living room to living room.” He noted that Biden failed to do this in New Hampshire in the 2020 presidential primary and finished in fifth place. “He didn’t engage with anybody at a local level. He kept himself at a distance, and he got penalized. And we tried to warn the rest of the country that they were electing a fool for president. Nobody listened,” jabbed Sununu, who has been a vocal Trump critic at times as well.
But, he summed up New Hampshire politics and voters, “you’ve got to earn it here person to person. We are fundamentally different and way better than everybody else.”
In an age of increased political homogenization, even New Hampshire is illustrative of national trends. Its shift from red to purple is one of the clearest examples of the impact of educational polarization in American politics. And, of course, the nationalized media environment means that Granite Staters are getting their information from many of the same sources as everyone else. The days when the then-Manchester Union Leader’s right-wing editorial line skewed the state’s politics are in the distant past — although the state’s sole local television affiliate, WMUR, still carries disproportionate influence with voters.
But it is still quirky, above all: After all, it is a state where each town has its peculiarities and political operatives can rhapsodize about the political nuances of the two adjoining towns of Derry and Londonderry. It’s also the rare place where opposition to vaccine mandates is tied to support for abortion rights, and an organized homesteading project by libertarians still has lingering political influence.
In some ways, New Hampshire’s unusual characteristics are only made more obvious by the national trends. The growing educational polarization in the United States emphasizes just how out of the ordinary it is, as an ancestrally Republican state where voters have an aversion both to paying taxes and to attending church. These peculiar traits aren’t going away anytime soon. Instead, it simply means that the ongoing national political realignment has swept up the state’s politics and has already turned the Granite State purple. The question now is just how much further it will go.