Politics

The most surprising battleground for the House: New England

The party out of power historically picks up seats in a president's first midterm, and the political environment appears to favor Republicans to retake the House.

Rep. Jahana Hayes introduces Vice President Kamala Harris and CEO of Planned Parenthood Alexis McGill Johnson, to discuss women's reproductive rights at Central Connecticut State University on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022 in New Britain, Conn. Douglas Hook /Hartford Courant via AP


JOHNSTON, R.I. – Seth Magaziner, a Democrat running for an open House seat, stood in a senior center in this working-class Providence suburb last week to warn that voting for his opponent would threaten Social Security checks.

His message on this day and throughout his campaign to voters has been clear: You will live to regret venting your frustrations at the status quo by voting for his opponent and potentially handing control of the House to Republicans.

“We cannot take that risk,” Magaziner said at the senior center. “We cannot let Rhode Island’s 2nd Congressional District be the place that put the fox in charge of the henhouse.”

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The district voted for Biden by nearly 14 points in 2020, and longtime Democratic Rep. Jim Langevin, who is retiring, has held it easily for more than two decades, winning by big margins even in strong years for Republicans.

But Magaziner’s Republican opponent, Allan Fung, is threatening to break through the blue wall of New England, which has been a Democratic a stronghold for nearly two decades.

Two recent polls have shown Fung, a popular former mayor and the Republican nominee, with a slight lead.

He is one of a handful of Republicans in New England – including candidates in Maine, New Hampshire and Connecticut – who have a chance of winning in a region where congressional Republicans had been considered an endangered species. There are no New England Republicans in the House, and Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) is the only Republican senator from the region.

The party out of power historically picks up seats in a president’s first midterm, and the political environment appears to favor Republicans to retake the House. But Republicans in New England point to additional factors in their favor, including a cadre of strong candidates and a “perfect storm” of issues that include the high cost of energy and food as well as the rise of fentanyl in New England communities, which GOP candidates argue is arriving up north due to a lack of security at the southern border.

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“I guess, a perfect storm would be too easy of an analogy, but the issue environment is perfect for a Republican,” said Dave Carney, a New Hampshire Republican political strategist.

Republicans also argue that abortion, an issue that has bolstered Democrats’ hopes of retaining control of the House after Roe v. Wade was overturned, does not resonate with voters in New England as much as in other parts of the country because it’s unlikely states in the Northeast will enact laws restricting access to abortion.

“I think a woman’s right to have an abortion is very important, and while that plays a role in people’s decision, I believe I’m seeing firsthand that it falls on deaf ears a little bit here in New England,” said Scott Brown, a Republican who won the race to fill the late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts in an upset in 2010, only to the lose reelection two years later.

No House Republican has represented New England since Rep. Bruce Poliquin (Maine) – who is running this year against Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) to reclaim his seat – lost reelection in 2018, but it has been longer since Republicans had a strong presence in the region.

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Republicans held nearly half of New England’s Senate seats and a quarter of the House seats until the 2006 Democratic wave election, when Republicans lost the House. Four of the 30 House seats Republicans lost that year were in New England, leaving one House Republican survivor.

Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) lost his seat in 2006 despite high approval ratings, as Rhode Islanders took out their frustrations with President George W. Bush and congressional Republicans on him.

“People just didn’t want a Republican Senate,” Chafee said in an interview.

Now, Republicans are betting that New England voters unhappy with President Biden are willing to give the GOP a strong look. They’re aggressively spending in the region, forcing Democrats to defend territory Biden won in 2020.

Democrats argue that the Republicans, regardless of how moderate they are promising to be, will have difficulty distancing themselves from the extreme elements of the party that dominate today’s GOP.

“New Englanders don’t want their representatives in Washington pushing abortion bans, enabling violent insurrections and slashing their Social Security and Medicare benefits – that’s why they’ve rejected the MAGA brand of the GOP cycle after cycle,” said James Singer, spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Republicans are well represented in the region’s governors’ mansions: Three of the country’s most popular governors – Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Chris Sununu of New Hampshire and Phil Scott of Vermont – are New England Republicans.

But competitive House districts have different dynamics and often don’t include the states’ largest cities, and the more rural makeup lends to more moderate political instincts.

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“Working class, and add on to that rural, that’s a good formula for Republicans,” said Dante Scala, professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. “Democrats can’t afford to be complacent and where they might be the ones saying, ‘What has Biden done for me?’ “

In addition to Rhode Island, Republicans are targeting two seats in New Hampshire and one in Connecticut that Biden carried in 2020, as well as a Maine district that former president Donald Trump won twice.

In Connecticut’s 5th District, George Logan, a former Republican state senator, is trying to unseat Democratic Rep. Jahana Hayes in a seat formerly held by Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, who flipped the seat blue in 2006.

“Waterbury, Danbury, Torrington, these cities used to be pretty reliably Democratic,” Murphy said in an interview. “But as factories closed and the union families disappeared, they began to vote more Republican.”

Logan is positioning himself as a moderate, leaning into “sensible leadership,” but has lagged in fundraising, raising a small fraction of Hayes’s haul, although his most recent fundraising totals for the third quarter haven’t been released.

New Hampshire Republican 1st Congressional District candidate Karoline Leavitt at a campaign event, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Manchester, N.H. – AP Photo/Charles Krupa

Signifying the importance of the race for Republicans, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who first won in Upstate New York in a district carried by President Barack Obama, has prioritized making Republican inroads in the Northeast. She held a fundraiser for Logan on Tuesday night.

“Republicans are absolutely going to dominate the Northeast as single-party Democratic rule has delivered inflation, skyrocketing energy and home heating bills and a significant crime crisis. House Republicans are on pace to pick up seats throughout” the region, Stefanik told The Washington Post in a statement.

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Barbara Ellis, Hayes’s campaign manager, said Logan’s reliance on the national party in the final weeks is proof that he’s no moderate.

“The GOP knows that if they win these purple districts in New England, they will have a pathway to a majority, so they can implement the MAGA agenda and [House Leader] Kevin McCarthy’s Commitment to America,” she said. “Simply, winning a few seats will allow them to turn back the clock.”

The Post contacted the Logan campaign multiple times for comment or an interview but received no response.

Both Republican and Democratic operatives interviewed for this article acknowledged that the potential for Republican success this cycle may be fleeting.

“Let’s say on the off chance Allan Fung and George Logan get into Congress and they stick with McCarthy and vote this extreme, extreme Republican line – they’re going to have a very short career,” a Democratic official working to elect House Democrats said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the party’s electoral strategy in New England.

A Stefanik protégé and former Trump press aide Karoline Leavitt is running competitively against Rep. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.). She doesn’t fit the mold of a moderate New England Republican and is highlighting culture-war issues alongside an emphasis on the economy.

“I look forward to flipping this district red and serving as a much needed conservative voice in Congress for our Live Free or Die State and our beautiful New England region,” Leavitt said in a statement.

Pappas, elected in 2018, points out that his district often flips between the parties and that he could be the first person to win a third term there since former Rep. John E. Sununu won reelection in 2000.

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“I think that’s a huge contrast between myself and my opponent, who’s never worked across the aisle for anything,” Pappas said in an interview. Leavitt has “only sort of read off the MAGA talking points and pushed a pretty extreme agenda.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and House Democrats’ flagship super PAC together have booked more than $19 million in TV ads in New England, while the National Republican Congressional Committee and House Republicans’ lead super PAC have booked more than $23 million, according to the super PACs and people familiar with the committees’ spending. Congressional Leadership Fund, the Republican super PAC, added $1 million to its TV ad reservations in Rhode Island on Tuesday.

Such ad reservations are subject to change in the final weeks of the campaign, and they don’t include ad buys coordinated with the campaigns or the ads the candidates are running themselves.

One of the critical issues specific to the Northeast that Republicans say will work in their favor is the high cost of home heating oil.

“I’m not sure how folks are going to get through the winter,” Poliquin said at a recent campaign even in Lewiston.

The cost of home heating oil – which is how a quarter of people in the Northeast heat their homes, especially in rural areas – has doubled in the past year and costs the most since at least 1992, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“Democrats have a natural advantage” in New England, Brown said. “However, I think that this year is a very special year because this administration has done so poorly.”

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The Washington Post’s Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this story.

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