Inside the Midterm Misstep That May Haunt Seth Moulton

The congressman needs to succeed in New Hampshire if he runs for president, and he's starting on the wrong foot there.

Reps. Seth Moulton and Rep. Kathleen Rice, who led the opposition against House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi for speaker, arrive for the Democratic Caucus leadership elections at the Capitol on Nov. 28, 2018.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Feb. 1, 2019, 4:07 p.m.

AMHERST, N.H.—“Carpetbagger.” “Land mine.” “Nail in his coffin.”

Those are just a few of the ways New Hampshire Democrats described Rep. Seth Moulton’s ill-fated foray into one of the state's top midterm races. And they warn it will come back to haunt him in 2020.

Ahead of his trip to Bedford on Saturday, interviews with nearly a dozen Democratic Party operatives, activists, and former campaign staffers in the first-in-the-nation primary state reveal a misstep that could play an outsized role in determining Moulton's showing here should the ambitious congressman from neighboring Massachusetts decide to run for president.

To take over retiring Rep. Carol Shea-Porter’s seat in the 1st District, Moulton endorsed Maura Sullivan, a 39-year-old former Marine and personal friend from Harvard. An Iraq war veteran and former Obama administration official, Sullivan had all the markings of a top-tier congressional candidate and was one of nearly three dozen service-minded leaders Moulton urged to run for the House in 2018.

Twenty-one of the 34 congressional candidates Moulton's Serve America PAC supported won, including many in swing districts. But Sullivan faced considerable challenges early on.

One of 11 Democrats competing to take over Shea-Porter’s seat, her campaign was marred by concerns over her move to the seacoast town of Portsmouth from out of state less than three months before announcing her bid. Sullivan came in second, finishing 12 points behind former Executive Councilor Chris Pappas, the preferred candidate among top Democratic strategists and lawmakers in the state.

“Moulton bringing in essentially a fellow Marine carpetbagger was not looked on with great appreciation,” said a former Democratic National Committee member with decades of experience here.

“The nail in his coffin was when he endorsed Maura Sullivan,” said a staffer who worked on a campaign here that received national attention during the midterms. Another staffer said Moulton’s involvement created tension among Democrats in an otherwise collegial setting.

“I’ve never seen a non-presidential primary where people were pissed off like they were last time,” one insider said.

Moulton declined to comment through a spokesperson.

He is scheduled to appear at a “meet and greet” alongside Sullivan at the request of the Bedford Democratic Committee, which sent him an invitation last month. The traditionally conservative community, known as a hotbed of wealthy Republican donors, trended Democratic in the midterms and helped push Pappas to victory.

Leaders and activists across southern New Hampshire have expressed interest in hosting presidential hopefuls in politically diverse areas, including towns like Bedford that are newly amenable to Democrats. But nearly all the insiders interviewed cautioned that while Moulton is likely to be welcomed by event-goers, some influential Democrats are still angered by his intervention in the race.

“His attempt to helicopter in someone to run in New Hampshire was offensive,” said Judy Reardon, a longtime Democratic activist. “After what he did, to me it would be hopeless for him” in the state’s presidential primary.

Moulton is said to be exploring the idea of a presidential run, and New Hampshire would be a must-win for him. But his path to the nomination is already thorny, with one longtime Democratic activist citing a “tremendous amount of residual bad feelings” held over from 2018.

No congressman has been elevated directly to president since James Garfield, and while no Democratic politician from Massachusetts running in the primary has ever lost—with the exception of former Sen. Ted Kennedy—Moulton will have regional rivals in fellow Bay State Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who hasn’t officially declared his candidacy but won in a landslide here against Hillary Clinton.

Like Warren and Sanders, Moulton has had a physical presence here. In addition to appearing in Manchester with Sullivan, he attended an event with the Merrimack County Democrats, where he called for a “new generation of political leadership” like freshman state Rep. Matt Wilhelm, a young Democrat from Manchester whom Serve America boosted. After Sullivan’s loss, Moulton also made a financial contribution to the state party.

But it may not be enough.

Kathy Sullivan, a longtime strategist and former New Hampshire Democratic Party chairwoman unrelated to Maura Sullivan, said her opinion has changed since first hearing about the congressman’s presidential aspirations.

“I used to think, 'Moulton’s got a good résumé, he would be interesting,'” Sullivan said. But, she added, “People in New Hampshire get very defensive and a little resentful when people from outside of the state tell us how we should vote or what we should do. I have to put him in that category.”

The negative out-of-state connotation has precedent. When Shea-Porter was first elected to the House in 2006, then-New Hampshire House Minority Leader Jim Craig was also running in the primary. Multiple sources pointed out that among leaders and activists, there was a sense that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was tipping the scales for Craig. Shea-Porter won the primary with 54 percent of the vote, with Craig finishing second.

“That’s the genius of the New Hampshire primary,” the former veteran DNC operative said. “We do not necessarily bow down and worship the Beltway conventional wisdom.”

While Moulton quickly ascended to power by ousting longtime Rep. John Tierney in Massachusetts’ 6th District in 2014, four years later he took his insurgent reputation national by leading the effort to remove House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Members of Moulton’s inner circle see his willingness to challenge the status quo and fundraising prowess as assets. Serve America raised $2 million from Jan. 17 through Sept.18, according to a campaign official, third most of any leadership PAC among Democrats last cycle.

But Democrats here said ahead of his Saturday trip with Sullivan, which was met with fresh speculation about his presidential ambitions, that the Pelosi affair further harmed his standing in the state. “What he attempted to do to Pelosi reminded people of what he did in the primary,” Reardon said.

“Both moves were not very smart if you’re thinking about running for president,” a separate insider with decades of experience in the state warned. “He stepped on a land mine.”

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