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Republicans struggle to compete for NH district they held for a century

In a New Hampshire congressional district Republicans held for all but four years of the 20th century, a two-term Democratic incumbent appears to have secured an easy path to re-election this fall, based on campaign finance reports released last Friday and the inability of Republicans to field a well-known challenger.

Rep. Ann McLane Kuster won the 2nd Congressional District seat in 2012 when she defeated Republican incumbent Charlie Bass. So far this year, she has raised vastly more money than any U.S. House candidate in the state. In the first six months of 2016, she raised $2.48 million, with $1.48 million coming from individual contributions, according to Federal Election Commission reports released last week. No other New Hampshire congressional candidate has raised even $1 million this year.

Combined, Kuster’s two aspiring Republican challengers have raised just 1.8 percent of her total.

“Kuster kind of got off to a rocky start, but it does feel like she’s sort of entrenched now in terms of fundraising and organization,” New England College political science professor Dean Spiliotes said. “The people I’ve talked to in her campaign, they’re paying attention but they don’t feel panicked or concerned about (her potential Republican opponents) Lawrence or Flanagan. I think they feel like they can sort of go about their business.”

Former state House Majority Leader Jack Flanagan of Brookline, who announced his run last fall, has raised just $20,591 this year, according to his FEC reports. He has lent his campaign $10,000. Former state representative Jim Lawrence of Nashua has raised $25,366 this year and lent his campaign $6,000, his FEC reports show.

Bass, who held the seat for seven terms, said the district has changed over the years to the point that Republicans will have a hard time winning it without demographic shifts or a favorable redistricting.

“Everything has changed. It’s not just the district,” Bass said. “There have been demographic changes, and I think it began with the influence Howard Dean had on New Hampshire. The district became much more liberal on the western side near the Connecticut River and much more conservative on the eastern side.”

In 2001, Republicans in the state legislature shifted some solidly Republican towns into the 1st District, which helped Democrats in the second. “The Republicans basically came to me and said we want to load up the 1st District with Republicans because you can’t be beat,” Bass said.

Five years later, Bass was beaten by Democrat Paul Hodes. In 2004, Bass had defeated Hodes 59 percent to 38 percent. In 2006, Hodes won 53-45. Bass won the seat back in 2010 but lost to Kuster in 2012, when New Hampshire voters went for Barack Obama 52 percent to 46 percent.

Regarding the shortage of money among Kuster’s would-be Republican rivals, Flanagan attributes that to Republican voters being stretched too thin.

“We’ve got a highly contested governor’s race. We’ve got a U.S. Senate primary. We’ve got a congressional race on the Seacoast. And a presidential primary. Some of these people are tapped out.”

Flanagan, who was largely unknown in the district according to a March WMUR-UNH poll, said it “leans left” these days, but he still thinks Kuster can be beaten.

“My hope is combining the fact that the public is pretty sick of Washington, D.C., and they seem to be voting Republican based on the primary, and that I’m a legitimate candidate … I think I have a shot.”

“Do I think it’s a slam dunk? No. Will I be pleasantly surprised if I win? Yes. Do I think I can win? Sure.”