Virtually every word that 25-year-old New Hampshire Republican Karoline Leavitt utters in her neck-and-neck race with two-term Democratic Representative Chris Pappas is practiced. She was so smitten with this line from her Thursday night debate with Pappas that she retweeted it: “The inconvenient truth, Congressman Pappas, is that Donald Trump is not on the ballot this November. You are, and Joe Biden is.”
That, in a nutshell, is the problem afflicting Democrats, not only in New Hampshire (where two House seats and Maggie Hassan’s Senate seat are on the line) but also all over the Northeast. Republicans could plausibly win enough House races in New York alone to elect Kevin McCarthy as speaker. And in Rhode Island, a state that Biden won by 20 points in 2020, a self-described “moderate Republican” has a realistic shot of picking up a vacant House seat.
Despite his rallies from Pittsburgh to Sioux City, Iowa, his legal woes, and his heavy-handed threats of another presidential race, Trump is no longer a constant in-your-face presence on TV screens and social media. And that partial absence makes it challenging for the Democrats to retain the support of the crucial bloc of voters with right-of-center economic views who nonetheless were appalled by the ugly, self-indulgent chaos of the Trump years.
But few candidates on the ballot anywhere have been more thoroughly molded and indoctrinated by Trump than Karoline Leavitt. A graduate of Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, Leavitt entered the Trump White House as an intern and morphed into a deputy press secretary. After a brief stint on Capitol Hill as communications director for New York Representative Elise Stefanik, who ousted Liz Cheney as chair of the House Republican Conference, Leavitt confidently declared she was running for Congress in the summer of 2021 at the age of 23. Talking about her disciplined, on-message style, Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, said, “You can tell that she is a graduate of the Washington school of press secretaries.”
Early Saturday morning, Leavitt made an obligatory stop at the 24-hour Red Arrow Diner, a century-old downtown Manchester institution. She made the rounds of the tiny temple of grease, cheerfully reciting her mantra, “I’m Karoline Leavitt. I’m running for Congress. The election is Tuesday. Less inflation, lower gas prices.”
On the sidewalk in front of the diner, I asked Leavitt whether she considered Trump to be a great president. It was as if I had hit a switch on a talking robot. “I certainly do,” she replied, staring me straight in the eye. “He had great policies in contrast to the policies we have now.” Then, in rapid-fire style, she began railing about gasoline prices, open borders, and fentanyl. Distilling her sound-bite campaign to its essence, she said, “People are choosing between heating and eating. I know it rhymes, but it’s also the truth.”
Chris Pappas, the heir to another century-old Manchester restaurant (the Puritan Backroom) and the first openly gay legislator that New Hampshire has sent to Capitol Hill, spent Saturday morning making his own rounds of local breakfast spots. I caught up with the 42-year-old Pappas, dressed in jeans and a blue sport shirt, at Chez Vachon, a French Canadian–inspired restaurant. When I asked how he responded to Leavitt’s three-word “heating and eating” argument, Pappas’s thoughtful 90-second answer began with refinery problems in Philadelphia (which has contributed to New Hampshire’s higher-than-average gasoline prices), included his urging Biden to suspend oil and gas exports, and ended with a discussion of low-income heating assistance. When I noted that his reply would not qualify as bumper-sticker material, Pappas said, “I think it’s about trust. It comes down to people knowing me as a local business owner who looks out for the community and works across the aisle.”
The bipartisan argument—which Hassan also mentions in virtually every other sentence—may play well with New Hampshire swing voters. But it also seems retro in an era of angry quick takes and partisan zingers. “I haven’t been on a national cable show in three years—and I don’t care to,” Pappas said, as he talked about the virtues of speaking to local media. His communications director, Collin Gately, couldn’t resist cracking, “It isn’t for a lack of trying.”
The Pappas-Leavitt race is about as much of a toss-up as any House race in the country. According to calculations by the influential Cook Political Report, the district has no partisan leaning in any direction. While Biden carried NH-1 with 52 percent of the vote in 2020, the district has changed hands five times in this century. As Pappas himself pointedly noted, the last time a Democratic incumbent held the seat in an off-year election was 40 years ago.
If Leavitt prevails, she will become an immediate national celebrity as the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. Talking with campaign volunteers Saturday morning, she admitted, in the only candid moment I witnessed, “It’s been a crazy ride.” She won her primary against the 2020 Republican nominee, Matt Mowers, who had the backing of the Kevin McCarthy–affiliated super PAC, by going full MAGA. Leavitt boasted in the final pre-primary debate, “I consistently continue to be the only candidate in this race who says that I believe the 2020 election was undoubtedly stolen from President Trump.”
But for all her right-wing outlook—including opposition to military aid to Ukraine—Leavitt, if elected, would be unlikely to emerge as a public firebrand on the model of Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert. Leavitt’s skill is not in shouting epithets but rather in masking her Trumpian views with a polite, soft-spoken manner that makes her words seem almost reasonable.
Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who first won national renown for helping Gary Hart win the 1984 Democratic primary, considers 2022 to be a break point in New Hampshire politics. “What makes this a strange year,” she told me, “is that so many people running for major office are election deniers. This wasn’t true in 2016, 2018, or 2020. What we’re seeing is undermining the country.”
What makes Tuesday so potentially frightening is that even though Trump may not be on the ballot, his handiwork in jeopardizing democracy still is. And Leavitt and other true-believing acolytes are poised for power standing on that platform.