When Gail Huff Brown strode into Ryan’s Place, a locally famous, patriotic-themed diner in Epping, N.H., co-owner Mickey McDermot ran over to give her a hug. An Elvira lookalike, McDermot named the diner after her son, Ryan, who passed away while stationed at Fort Hood, just weeks before he was to deploy to Afghanistan.

Military photographs and memorabilia line the diner’s walls, and the French toast and eggs are served with mini-American flags stuck on top. Huff Brown, who is running for Congress in New Hampshire’s First District loves the food at Ryan’s Place and the story of two former waitresses – one a grieving mother – opening their own restaurant and making it thrive.

Huff Brown is a contender, along with Matt Mowers and Karoline Leavitt, in the crowded GOP primary. All three have connections to Trump. Mowers worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign and at the State Department. Leavitt was a deputy press secretary under Trump. Huff Brown’s husband, Scott Brown, is a former Massachusetts senator and served as the Trump administration’s ambassador to New Zealand.

She doesn’t call herself a Trump Republican. “I am a ‘Live Free or Die’ Republican,” Huff Brown says.

Trump has yet to weigh into the race. But if J.D. Vance’s victory in Ohio’s hotly-contested U.S. Senate primary Tuesday is any indication, Trump’s endorsement here could determine the winner.

Huff Brown says two events catalyzed her decision to run for Congress. The first was the 2021 birth of her first grandchild, which heightened her concern about the long-term direction of the country. The second was the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan which left 13 American soldiers dead, U.S. citizens stranded in the country, and expensive military equipment in the Taliban’s hands.

“We got phone calls from people that needed help getting loved ones out,” Huff Brown told NHJournal. She called the hasty withdrawal “criminal.”

“That day, Scott got home from work, and I said, ‘I’m running for office,’” she recounted. When her husband asked why she replied, “We have to stop Joe Biden.”

A Rye resident, Huff Brown never thought she would seek office. For 30 years she worked as a broadcast journalist. She says the skills she mastered – interviewing, researching, investigating, and trying to get to the truth – are “desperately needed in Washington.”

“This is about taking back a seat and beating Chris Pappas,” she told NH Journal, adding she has a “wonderful life” and wouldn’t have gotten in the race “if she thought anyone else could beat him.”

Huff Brown has dismissed speculation among New Hampshire GOP circles that she is a stalk-horse for her husband, who misses the political action. Brown lost his 2014 bid for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire against Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in one of the most expensive races in the state’s history. (That number is likely to be eclipsed in the 2022 race for Sen. Maggie Hassan’s seat.)

“He [Scott] tried everything to talk me out of it in the beginning. It was my idea from the very beginning, it’s my idea now. He has nothing to do with it,” Huff Brown said during a podcast interview with NHJournal.

In a year that is trending Republican, New Hampshire’s First District looks like a potential pick-up for the GOP. Just 37 percent of district one voters think Rep. Pappas “deserves reelection,” according to a March 23 New Hampshire Institute of Politics poll. His favorability rating among “swing” voters in this purple district sits at 35 percent.

But the GOP primary is going to be “a barn burner of a race,” Republican strategist Dave Carney told NHJournal. He called this “a tough choice” for Trump.

Huff Brown says the biggest issues facing New Hampshire voters are inflation and high gas prices. “People can’t afford to put food on their table,” she said. Unlike many Republicans, Huff Brown supports temporarily lifting the federal and state gas tax. “We need to get back to being energy independent,” Huff Brown told NHJournal. “But in the meantime, we need relief.”

Huff Brown says voters are also deeply “concerned about fentanyl.” She was the first candidate in the race to visit the southern border and earned the Border Patrol Council’s endorsement in March.

On education, Huff Brown supports passing a parental rights bill, because parents “are the ultimate arbiters of their children’s education.” She wouldn’t say exactly what would be in the bill – “I would rely on lawyers” to draft it – but she says she’s “philosophically, ideologically” on board.

After Monday night’s Politico story on the leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion that would overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, the New Hampshire Democratic Party is poised to make abortion a central issue in this race, and a motivating factor to get voters to the polls.

In response, Sen. Maggie Hassan reiterated she opposes any restrictions on abortion. Only 32 percent of Americans support this position, while 48 percent support abortion with some limits, according to Gallup. Only 19 percent of Americans support making abortion illegal.

“At this point, we do not know whether the leaked document is a final decision, so I do not want to spend time speculating on it,” Huff Brown wrote in a statement to NHJournal. “The Supreme Court is an independent judiciary, this leak was an unthinkable breach of trust meant to undermine and politicize our nation’s highest courts.

“I’ve made my position on abortion clear: I support state’s rights, and I especially support our law here in New Hampshire. I do not support late-term abortion, federal funding for abortion or foreign aid being used for abortion, unlike Chris Pappas who supports abortion up until birth.”

Primary opponent Karoline Leavitt says she believes the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, but Huff Brown takes a more measured stance: “I believe in the rule of law,” she said, adding that the election has “gone through the court system” and “Joe Biden is sitting in the seat.” 

Leavitt is working hard to court Trump’s endorsement, appears regularly on conservative media, and toes the most pro-Trump party line. Mowers, who won the GOP nomination for the seat two years ago, was endorsed by Trump and made appearances with him across the state. He also worked for the 2016 Trump campaign as an operative after his original candidate, Gov. Chris Christie, dropped out.

That led to the controversy of Mowers voting in both the New Hampshire and New Jersey presidential primaries that year. Mowers says he did nothing wrong. “I moved for work and I voted where I lived,” Mowers said.

Huff Brown, age 60, is older than her opponents, doesn’t run her own social media, and has gotten less national press. But she touts her Trump bonafides, saying she and her husband worked “in New Zealand representing him and America and the America First agenda” every day. Nobody in the race “has worked longer and harder for the president.”

And, Huff Brown added, “anybody voting twice is disqualifying.”

The primary is not until September and the district’s new map is not finalized, but Huff Brown knows in order to win she must increase her visibility and name ID. Only 49 percent of registered voters recognized Huff Brown’s name in a March New Hampshire Institute of Politics poll. Seventy-four percent held no opinion of her.

But at Ryan’s Place, Huff Brown was treated like a celebrity and an old friend. She joked with McDermot about hair metal bands, the number of calories in her French toast, and her husband’s rock band, Scott Brown & The Diplomats. If she can connect with voters the way she did with McDermot, Huff Brown could very well win the primary—with Trump’s endorsement as the X factor.