A Little Race With Big Implications

How a mayoral election in New Hampshire has become a rallying point for national politicians.

Rep. Tim Ryan gets ready to work the grill during the Polk County Democrats Steak Fry on Sept. 30 in Des Moines, Iowa.
AP Photo/Richard Vogel
Hanna Trudo
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Hanna Trudo
Oct. 23, 2017, 8 p.m.
New Hampshire’s largest city lands on the national political radar about every four years. But Manchester is already a hotbed of activity among prospective 2020 contenders.

What’s expected to be a hard-fought rematch on Nov. 7 between two city politicians—Republican Mayor Ted Gatsas and Democratic challenger Joyce Craig—has become a magnet for national figures looking to touch ground in the state before next year’s midterms and the presidential primaries after that.

Craig, who lost by 64 votes in a recount two years ago, is hoping to win back the city that Republicans have controlled for more than a decade. And while the municipal contest is officially nonpartisan, it has become a partisan battleground.

Among Democrats, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, set to visit the state in the next few days, joins a growing chorus of politicians who have trekked to Manchester to express their support. “The road to governing majorities in Washington runs through winning local elections in places like Manchester,” he told National Journal in a statement. Also stopping by in recent months: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who hosted fundraisers for Craig in late August; Rep. John Delaney and former Gov. Martin O’Malley, both from Maryland; and Let America Vote President Jason Kander.

“The next good thing to do right now is to help other people who are running for office,” 2016 presidential candidate O’Malley, who was with Craig during her last bid, told National Journal. “Manchester needs that leadership energy that Joyce can bring.”

Gatsas hopes to capitalize on national Democrats’ missteps. So far, he’s got a significant backer—the Republican National Committee.

RNC Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel recently made her first ever trip to New Hampshire for fundraisers benefiting local Republicans. “The RNC never left New Hampshire after last November,” McDaniel told National Journal in a statement. Its “year-round ground operation” is shaping up nicely.

Republicans are particularly hoping to flip an open seat in the state’s 1st Congressional District and to reelect Gov. Chris Sununu. But first, Gatsas could be a prime party win. “We are fully engaged,” she said.

Political analysts are hard-pressed to recall another mayoral race receiving this much national attention in the state. But nearly one year after Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton (Clinton narrowly outpolled Trump in Manchester), both parties are searching for new ways—and new races—to generate grassroots support.

“New Hampshire is ground zero for this fight in 2018,” Kander said during the state party’s midterm convention last month, adding that “we’re going to start in 2017” with Craig’s campaign.

Since his address, Kander has taken another step for Craig: Let America Vote will set up a field operation this week and plans to keep it running through Election Day. Kander also recently donated $5,000 to her campaign.

Delaney, the only officially declared presidential contender, also gave $5,000 to help Craig. He spoke at a canvas kickoff event at her city headquarters this month.

So far, Craig leads Gatsas in fundraising, taking in more than $300,000 compared with approximately $270,000 for Gatsas, according to pre-primary disclosures. She also finished first in last month’s primary by 7 points.

“She’s so impressive,” Garcetti told National Journal. After Craig’s campaign reached out to him, Garcetti, who called the contest “the most important race in the country,” said he talked it over with Dayton, Ohio Mayor Nan Whaley. “Absolutely” he should work to help her win, he recalled Whaley saying.

Democrats are hoping to ride earlier successes, having won five out of seven recent special elections. And in an off year with no statewide or congressional races, they’re paying even closer attention to the mayoral rematch.

New Hampshire Democratic Party spokesman Wyatt Ronan said officials have been recruiting bigger-name Democrats to “lend some of their influence and credibility” to efforts that will “really matter down the line.” Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, for example, have recently supported separate Democratic causes in the state.

The RNC, which has ramped up its ground game across battleground states in recent months, has consistently outraised the Democratic National Committee since Trump’s inauguration in January. In September, the GOP raised $10.8 million, compared to the DNC’s $4.8 million, according to recent filings.

An RNC official shared with National Journal the committee’s involvement to date with Gatsas’s campaign, including contacting more than 110,000 Manchester voters, organizing ground volunteers, and training RNC fellows dispatched to the city to help with reelection efforts.

And like Democrats, prominent national figures from across the party spectrum are investing more in New Hampshire ahead of key races. Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, for example, will be in Manchester two days after the election to speak at a major conservative fundraiser.

Still, Democrats are hoping that Craig, who could make history as the first woman to hold the mayoralty, can turn the Queen City blue.

New Hampshire state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro said the razor-thin margin of Craig’s last defeat is enough to draw significant attention. But he also said she may not be the only one to benefit.

“It’s a good way to get exposure,” he said. “People are obviously getting ready for 2020, and there’s no place like the present to start and lock in your potential supporters.”

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