How did we get here, New Hampshire?
Two years ago, after Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s 15-point blowout of millionaire Corky Messner, could anyone imagine the guy who lost to Messner in the primary would be on the verge of a stunning upset of Sen. Maggie Hassan today?
Two years ago, when Rep. Chris Pappas beat experienced political operative Matt Mowers, Karoline Leavitt was still living in D.C. and barely old enough to buy beer. Today, she’s in a neck-and-neck race with the incumbent congressman.
Even Rep. Annie Kuster’s race — against an underfunded gadfly whose biggest contributor in the GOP primary was the Democratic Party — is down to a single-digit lead.
What happened? Well, Joe Biden happened. He’s the least popular president at this point in his presidency in modern history. And inflation happened, and high energy prices, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and on and on. But that’s not the entire story.
After all, Granite State candidates have prevailed in tough environments before. Gov. Chris Sununu beat Molly Kelly by seven points in the “Blue Wave” of 2018. Shaheen beat Scott Brown in 2014, even as nine other Democrats were losing Senate races around the country.
And don’t forget that Hassan is struggling in a race against Don Bolduc — literally the Democrats’ hand-picked opponent. He is in this race in part thanks to more than $3 million in spending by Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer. Hassan and the Democrats wanted to run against him. So, why aren’t they beating him?
It was Annie Kuster who let the cat out of the bag on Friday during the WMUR debate. After taking some incoming fire from Burns about the campaign cash she has taken from big businesses and their lobbyists, moderator Adam Sexton gave her the opportunity to respond.
“No comment,” Kuster replied.
Later in the debate, she did it again.
Who says “no comment” during a TV debate — twice? The moderator’s giving you a free shot, 30 seconds to say anything you want to the voters at home, and your answer is “no comment?”
Well, yes. Because Kuster, Hassan, and Pappas have been running on a “no comment” strategy for months. As Kevin Landrigan noted in the Union Leader Sunday, “throughout this campaign, Hassan has answered questions on specific issues from reporters following her by-invitation events. She has not had freewheeling news conferences on the campaign trail or hosted any in-person town hall forums to field questions from the public.”
Asked by NHPR’s Josh Rogers why she had never held a town hall, Hassan said she did not need to invite the voters to talk to her because she talks to them while shopping at the Market Basket or getting coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts.
The same with Pappas. No town halls, refuses to release his public schedule to the press, and only meets with friendly crowds at controlled events.
“No comment” isn’t just a dodge. It is the Democrats’ entire campaign strategy. Spend millions on campaign ads and go to the mattress. Whether you call it “prevent defense” or the “do no harm” strategy, it reeks of condescension, of elitism, of a sense of entitlement.
And if the Democrats are running the “No Comment” campaign, their Republican challengers are running a “No Limits” race. Bolduc was out at his 81st town hall on Friday, continuing his never-ending “Ask Me Anything” session. And saying anything, too.
Bill Gates’ microchips, clumsy comments about legislators and abortion — if you search the tapes there’s probably a reference to fluoridation and our “precious bodily fluids.”
But there was also a lot of Don Bolduc asking voters for their support. Talking to them like a regular guy, with passion and purpose. Sure, he has made more mistakes than Hassan has made. But he has made a lot more connections as well. Connections with real people who didn’t have to hang out in the Market Basket dairy aisle hoping for the chance to ask the candidate a question.
Leavitt has run a similar campaign, and she has defied the conventional wisdom about how candidates have to “pivot to the middle” after the primary. Not Leavitt. She still stands by her statements regarding the 2020 election and maintains her “America First” message. She and Bolduc are choosing authenticity over strategy.
While Hassan and Pappas are in campaign lockdown, Bolduc and Leavitt are letting it all hang out. And they have both gone from double-digit deficits to neck-and-neck races.
Meanwhile, it is the Democrats who are pivoting to the middle. Hassan and Pappas are born-again border hawks who have gone from voting against funding a border wall to embracing the “racist” Title 42 policy. And as gas prices have risen, they have gone from Al Gore Democrats to Sara Palin Republicans on energy production — “Drill, Baby, Drill!”
It is political posturing, of course. Which is what Hassan and Pappas are: Politicians. How can you tell? Because nobody but politicians ever says, “No comment.”
If the GOP wins an upset in either of these races, it will be a reminder that candidate quality matters for Democrats, too.