What to watch in New Hampshire, Rhode Island primaries this week

Trump-backed candidates battle for New Hampshire GOP nods

New Hampshire Rep. Chris Pappas faces a competitive race in the 1st District. Republicans pick their nominee to take him on Tuesday.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
New Hampshire Rep. Chris Pappas faces a competitive race in the 1st District. Republicans pick their nominee to take him on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 7, 2020 at 6:00am

Two of the nation’s final primary contests of the cycle will be decided Tuesday, in New Hampshire and Rhode Island, but one of the most interesting tests will be over the power of someone who’s not on the ballot: President Donald Trump.

Republicans in the Granite State will pick their nominees to face two-term Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and freshman Rep. Chris Pappas in the 1st District. Trump has endorsed candidates in those primaries, but each faces a contest for the nomination.

Pappas is on the GOP’s radar this year because Trump carried his seat by less than 2 points in 2016 while barely losing statewide. Shaheen faces a Democratic challenger Tuesday but is not seen as vulnerable.

“She doesn’t have any contest,” Andrew Smith, a political science professor and polling director at the University of New Hampshire, said of the senator.

Here’s what to watch in Tuesday’s races. 

1. Will Trump’s voters do as he says?

Not only did the president endorse Army veteran and lawyer Corky Messner for the New Hampshire GOP Senate nomination and Matt Mowers to face Pappas, but Trump also gave them both in-person shout-outs at a rally in Manchester on Aug. 28. 

The GOP primaries will reveal “how much control New Hampshire Republicans want to give to Donald Trump,” said Tom Rath, a longtime GOP operative in the state who personally supports one of Mowers’ opponents, Matt Mayberry, an Air Force veteran and real estate executive.

Mowers, a former executive director of the state GOP who served in the Trump administration before running for Congress, has the fundraising edge, bringing in nearly $700,000 to Mayberry’s less than $200,000 through Aug. 19.

As his recent rally in the state indicates, Trump is aiming to compete this fall in New Hampshire, which he lost to Hillary Clinton by less than half a percentage point four years ago.

In the Senate race, the Trump-backed Messner also has a significant financial advantage over his top primary competitor, Don Bolduc, an Army veteran and political novice. Messner raised $4.4 million through Aug. 19, but that included $3.9 million of his own cash. Bolduc’s haul was just shy of $900,000. Messner ended the period with $2.5 million in the bank to Bolduc’s $178,000.

Messner has been up on the air, including with a recent ad featuring clips from the Trump rally

Neither candidate, nor the other two contenders on the GOP ballot, appears to have much of a shot in the general election against Shaheen. The winner will have the “honor of getting trounced by Jeanne Shaheen,” Rath predicted. 

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Solid Democratic.

2. A flippable seat

Republicans have their sights on Pappas’ seat in November, just as Trump does with the whole state. 

But no matter whether Trump gets his preferred candidate (in Mowers), Pappas holds the edge, Smith said, pointing to a recent poll that showed the incumbent up 52 percent to 34 percent against either Republican, with 12 percent undecided and 2 percent preferring other candidates. 

Pappas also held a financial advantage as of Aug. 19, reporting $1.5 million in the bank to Mowers’ $373,000 and just $22,000 for Mayberry. 

Inside Elections rates the race Likely Democratic.

3. Incumbent watch

In Rhode Island, Rep. David Cicilline is unopposed in the Democratic primary in the 1st District and has no Republican opponent. 

In the 2nd District, 10-term Democrat Jim Langevin faces a primary challenge from Dylan Conley, a lawyer and son of a state senator who once appeared as a prospective buyer on the HGTV program “House Hunters.”

Langevin, who won reelection two years ago with 63 percent of the vote, is not expected to face a threat. He had $1.3 million in his campaign account at Aug. 19, while Conley had $9,000.

Republicans also have a primary in the 2nd District between former state Rep. Bob Lancia and Donald Robbio, who ran in 2012 and came in last in a four-way primary.

Inside Elections rates the general election Solid Democratic.

Democratic Sen. Jack Reed and Republican challenger Allen Waters also are unopposed in their primaries. Waters briefly challenged Massachusetts Sen. Edward J. Markey as a Democrat earlier this cycle, before the Providence native switched to the Rhode Island race in December. In June, the state GOP rescinded its endorsement of Waters over a report that he had been arrested a year earlier in an alleged domestic assault incident. As of Aug. 19, Reed had $3.2 million in the bank to Waters’ $7,200.

In New Hampshire’s 2nd District, four-term Democrat Ann McLane Kuster faces a primary challenge from retiree Joseph Mirzoeff, but she’s expected to glide to the nomination. Four Republicans are bidding for the seat, but Inside Elections rates the general election Solid Democratic

4. Conspiracy theories

Democrats have criticized New Hampshire GOP contenders Bolduc and Messner for flirting with possible conspiracy theories. 

Bolduc reportedly discussed a widely debunked theory that billionaire Microsoft founder Bill Gates, a vaccine proponent, wants to implant people with microchips. “This is Bill Gates saying we should put chips inside people now. That’s a dangerous violation of my constitutional right,” Bolduc said, according to reports.

The New Hampshire Democratic Party accused Messner’s campaign, in a Twitter thread, of tweeting a hashtag used by followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory that alleges a “deep state” plot against Trump. Republicans have called the Democrats’ claims baseless.