There is just one important takeaway from the New Hampshire Journal NH-01 debate on Thursday night: Matt Mowers won.
By not losing.
It’s probably true that Karoline Leavitt delivered the best debate performance — hardly a surprise from a professional White House comms staffer — but it wasn’t significantly better than Mowers. Or, for that matter, Rep. Tim Baxter.
Leavitt’s performance surprised many observers. Some that a candidate who is still legally too young to serve in Congress (she turns 25 in three weeks) was so poised and eloquent. Others that she didn’t throw down on Mowers.
Leavitt barely laid a glove on him. If she’s got internal polling that shows her close, laying off might makes sense. But if the race is where the polling thus far as it, with Mowers as the functional frontrunner, that’s an odd strategic choice. As the saying goes, “if you ain’t the lead dog, the view don’t change.”
Nobody did anything during the debate to change their view.
The same is true for Gail Huff Brown. If the debate had a loser, she was it. Huff Brown has spent 30 years in TV news show business and it gives her the advantage of stage presence. And none of her answers were bad, but they weren’t noticeably good for the most part, either. Her performance was the least focused of the five, which is ironic given her experience as a broadcaster.
It’s not that Huff Brown performed poorly — though Leavitt did stop her cold when Huff Brown went after her on abortion. It’s that the other candidates were so focused and had their answers so well put together, she sounded unfocused and unprepared by comparison.
Ironically, her performance would have been one of the best in the two previous NHJournal debates, for U.S. Senate and NH-02. But the NH-01 candidates came with a communication strategy to execute, and they largely stuck to it.
Take former Executive Councilor Russell Prescott. He may not have been Mr. Excitement, but he used his legislative experience effectively. One good example was recounting his role in the fight for a parental notification law covering abortions for minors. “It became our first notification law on the books and eventually it ended up staying solid. It was a step that we took, a step in the right direction, and not going too far.”
That’s a pretty good summary of the style of leadership Prescott is offering.
Meanwhile, Rep. Baxter made sure the audience knew he’s a Rand Paul Republican who’s ready to wage war on “corrupt Republicans” — like the ones who’ll vote to make Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif) the next Speaker — as much as he is on Democrats. And while his message is far-Right and solidly Trumpish, he used stories about his special-needs brother to connect with the audience and frame his politics.
But what does any of this matter? Winning the primary means pushing past the frontrunner. Nobody did, which is why it’s a Mowers’ win.
The one wild card — or perhaps more accurately, “not entirely tame” card — is the Trump effect. Leavitt and Baxter both pushed the pro-Trump bone fides ‘bigly’ in the debate, with Leavitt going so far as to declare Trump the winner of the 2020 presidential debate and Joe Biden of stealing votes. Polls show there aren’t many Americans who agree with her, but every Republican knows one guy who does.
And he lives at Mar-a-Lago.
“The debate showed Republican candidates no longer distinguish themselves to their voters by ideology,” noted UNH political science professor Dante Scala. “Once upon a time, candidates had to prove their conservative credentials. Now, they have to prove their Trump credentials.”
Huff Brown, Mowers and Prescott tried to nuance the 2020 election integrity issue, supporting the idea of an investigation but not declaring Trump the victor. None of them pulled a “Cheney” and rejected the unfounded Trump #StoptheSteal conspiracy theory, but they didn’t embrace it, either. Leavitt and Baxter appear to be betting that won’t be enough for Republican primary voters. Asked about extremist Trump candidates like Blake Masters in Arizona and the danger they present to GOP efforts to win back Congress, they rejected the premise of the question.
“If you sell out your principles just to get elected, you don’t really win the election. You’re just a pencil pusher,” said Baxter. “If we don’t send a real conservative to Washington, then we don’t win the election to begin with.”
“I think voters are electing these people because they know these candidates are going to be unapologetically America First. I think I’m the best person to beat Chris Pappas — because I have conviction. You may not agree 100 percent of the time, but you will know where I stand.”
Mowers, on the other hand, struck a stance that might be described as “Trump enough.” He repeatedly touted his service in the Trump administration and avoided taking any stances likely to antagonize Trump supporters. But he also rarely discussed the man or used the phrase “America First.”
The calculation is self-evident: If you can be “Trump enough” to keep Republicans on board but not so “Trump” that you drive away independents, you’ve got a good shot at beating Rep. Chris Pappas.
It’s a smart strategy, but one that leaves Mowers vulnerable to attacks on his Trump flank. Thursday gave his opponents that opportunity. They didn’t take it.
All the candidates can make a case for why they won the debate, but the only loss was a wasted opportunity. How many more will the rest of the field get?