One Republican candidate acknowledged her “pay to play” campaign donations.

Another struggled to explain his support for increasing tolls in New Hampshire by 50 percent.

The third admitted he’s not thrilled with GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.

The first debate of the First Congressional District GOP primary to challenge U.S. Rep. Chris Pappas (D) got spicy Wednesday morning, thanks to the organizers’ decision to let the candidates question each other at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics.

They didn’t pitch softballs.

Businessman Chris Bright, Hollie Noveletsky of Novel Iron Works, and former Executive Councilor Russell Prescott were all on stage for the event hosted by the Right of Center meeting organized by the Pine Tree Public Policy Institute. The Center-Right organization was inspired by a similar group created by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, who made a cameo appearance at the debate via video stream. The groups bring together Republican and conservative organizations for off-the-record discussions of political issues and campaign strategies. Former House Speaker William O’Brien and former state GOP chair Stephen Stepanek oversee the New Hampshire group.

(Manchester Alderman Joe Kelly Levasseur, who was a surprise entrant in the primary on the last day of filing, did not meet the criteria to participate, according to O’Brien.)

Bill O’Brien with the Right of Center meeting hosted by Pine Tree Public Policy Institute welcomes attendees to the NH-01 GOP primary debate at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics on June 26, 2024.

After their opening remarks, each candidate was given the chance to question their two competitors. Bright and Noveltsky immediately opened fire.

Bright kicked off the questioning by targeting Noveletsky over her past campaign donations to Democrats.

“I looked at your political donations and I was troubled to see that you’ve given thousands of dollars to help Democrats defeat Republicans,” Bright said. He specifically mentioned checks to former state Sens. Tom Sherman, who ran for governor against Gov. Chris Sununu, and Burt Cohen, “who was so far left he supported socialist Bernie Sanders for president twice.”

“Do you regret those donations?” Bright asked.

“Both of those donations were because they were my state senator here in New Hampshire, and I’ve been working for ‘Buy American’ for the past two decades,” Noveletsky explained. “And to bring the bill forward… I did pay to play.” And, Noveletsky added, she didn’t have any regrets.

“I don’t regret working for ‘Buy American.’ I don’t regret working for the American worker.”

Bright then asked Prescott about his service on the 2017 Governor’s Advisory Commission on Intermodal Transportation (GACIT), which recommended a 50 percent increase in Granite State turnpike tolls.

“You voted with Chris Pappas and the rest of the Democrats on the Executive Council at the time, But thankfully, both Republicans and Gov. Sununu stood strong against your plan,” Bright told Prescott. Why should voters trust you now?”

Prescott defended his support for the advisory report, noting the 10-year highway plan “included removing the tolls at Merrimack and included taking care of long-needed maintenance on our bridges.”

After the debate, Prescott told NHJournal, “You can’t compare a committee contingency advisory vote to an official enactment. They are two totally different things. The advisory vote was to send information to the Governor, and consequently, I later voted on an enactment to remove Merrimack tolls. It’s that simple.”

Noveletsky also asked Prescott about the toll issue and questioned his reliability as a conservative. And she used her question time to target Bright over his unflattering comments about President Trump during a WMUR interview.

“[WMUR’s Adam Sexton] asked me if I 100 percent support Donald Trump,” Bright said, “and I’ll be honest: I don’t support anybody 100 percent.”

Bright said he was disappointed Trump didn’t use his “tremendous power” to “work a little bit harder” and “bring the Republican Party a little bit more together.”

“I don’t ascribe to fanboy politics,” Bright added. “I’m running my own campaign as my own person. And yeah, there are some things he’s done I don’t agree with.”

Prescott, who finished fourth in the 2o22 First Congressional District GOP primary, repeated a theme of his previous campaign: no negative attacks.

“I’d say that’s a little bit negative and misrepresentation of my record,” Prescott said of the criticism from his opponents. He defended his votes for Planned Parenthood funding while an Executive Councilor, “a vote for funding sexually transmitted disease testing,” and decried the “negative attack” on what he called his pro-life record.

All three candidates named illegal immigration as a top concern and urged a crackdown on illegal border crossings while simultaneously making it easier for skilled workers to come to the U.S. to meet market demands for labor.

“We need to be able to walk and chew gum,” Noveletsky said. “We need to close down illegal immigration and make it easier for people to come here [legally], who want to give back. We need to have that skill base.”

Not surprisingly, all three campaigns declared victory.

“On the debate stage and on the campaign trail, Russell Prescott continues to be the only candidate in this race who is running a positive race, highlighting Chris Pappas’ failed record on everything from the border to tackling inflation,” said Derek Dufresne, general consultant for the Prescott campaign.

“There is no questioning that Hollie is the conservative outsider that New Hampshire needs in this race. We simply can’t afford more all-talk and no-action career politicians,” said Noveletsky’s campaign manager, Isaac Haddam.

And Ashley Grosbeck, Bright for Congress campaign manager, said, “Republicans saw Hollie Noveletsky confess to being a Democrat-supporting, ‘pay to play’ politician and Russell Prescott stumble through a weak defense of his record as a toll-hiking liberal. The choice for Republicans who want a conservative winner in November is clear – the future is Bright.”

Several attendees, however, told NHJournal they had a more mixed reaction.

Former state Rep. Melissa Litchfield (R-Brentwood), who called herself “very undecided” in the race, said, “There were some shocking moments, to be honest with you. I had no idea Hollie had given money to those Democrat campaigns. That was a little bit disappointing.”

Shannon McGinley with Cornerstone Action said the debate was “interesting, it was good to see them in person and understand their personalities a little bit more.”

And there was unity both on stage and in the audience on the top priority of the primary campaign.

“To beat Chris Pappas,” Litchfield said.