PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — The scene here in this old Colonial seaport is deceptively pacific. The sun shimmers off the sea, the fishing boats pass quietly. But the talk over a leisurely lunch, harvested from the cool blue waters below, is anything but tranquil. The topics are Donald Trump, the midterm congressional elections and how little — or how much — a Republican House candidate should identify himself with the president.
Add to the savory menu this supplemental, succulent element:
The conversation is being held in a relatively balanced district that Trump carried by only 2 percentage points in 2016, and that now is represented by a Democratic legislator who won her seat by a single percentage point but isn’t seeking another term. This just might be the best opportunity in the nation for a Republican candidate to flip a seat from the Democrats, in contravention of historical trends (which hold that the party controlling the White House loses seats in midterm contests) and contemporary conventional wisdom (which suggest the Republicans are in for a skunking in November).
Which is why the position being staked out by state Sen. Andy Sanborn here in the eastern part of the Granite State — an area that six years ago split its vote by going for the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, and the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Maggie Hassan, now in the Senate — is so telling: for the midterms, for the Trump legacy, for the future of the Republican Party.
Sanborn, 56, supported Sen. Rand Paul in the 2016 New Hampshire primary and sided with Paul’s father, Rep. Ron Paul, four years earlier. But — and this speaks volumes about the new blood surging into the GOP and the transformation of the party — the four-term state senator doesn’t remember whom he supported in the 2008 primary. Maybe it was the senior Paul, maybe it was former Gov. Mitt Romney, maybe it was former Mayor Rudy Giuliani. He has no idea. His political life started when he recoiled at the government bureaucracies he confronted when he opened a sports-bar restaurant in Concord.
And so the critical matter is what he is saying about Trump, the straw that stirs the drink of November’s contests — to the delight of Democrats (who look at Trump’s disapproval ratings and see sugary visions of control of the House) and, against historical antecedents, to the delight also of some Republicans (who think the president is popular in enough places to hold the House and then to elect a new speaker congruent with his smashmouth rhetoric, populist politics and combative style).
They can both be right, of course, but not in the same congressional district, and that’s why here, in a district that includes Robert Frost’s farm in Derry and the storied White Mountains, Sanborn is citing Trump’s populist portfolio of tax cuts, immigration and deregulation. This, after all, is a state where anti-tax sentiment is the fluoride in the water, where government activism is deplored, and where immigration was largely confined to Greeks, Irish and Quebecois and basically halted when the textile boom ended generations ago.
“Here, people think the economy is going very well,” Sanborn said between chews, “and they think America is in a better place today than it’s been in a decade.”
To win his House seat, Sanborn must prevail in a tough primary in this district, punctuated with high-tech industries and highbush blueberries. Then he must take on whomever the Democrats select from a crowded field.
Sanborn faces headwinds, and not only because Portsmouth and Manchester have big pockets of Democratic voters. His GOP rivals are well-liked, and he’s the only one who has the New Hampshire Union Leader, the state’s biggest newspaper, pounding him about an inappropriate comment he allegedly made and a cash payment that allegedly followed. (The state attorney general cleared him, but the paper hasn’t let go of the story.)
“This is going to be a tough district because of Trump,” said Judd Gregg, who served two terms as governor and three in the Senate in Washington. “This is a moderate-to-liberal district, and the president isn’t popular.”
But Sanborn is pressing ahead.
“Are people open to Trump?” he asked. “I believe what happened in 2016 was that for 10 years people have been saying they’ve had it with the two-party system. Nothing happened down there in Washington. Everyday people … want destruction. They want someone to kick in the door and push everybody back.”
It’s not that Sanborn, a fourth-generation Hampshireman and a third-generation small-businessman, is a thorough anti-politician. His wife is a state representative who may have eyes on the House speakership. The conversation in their Bedford home has a distinctly political tinge — and Sanborn’s profile in this race reflects sober contemplation, perhaps calculation.
“The question of whether you associate yourself with Trump is a hard question,” he said. “But I spend much less time talking about his Twitter account than on what he’s done to make ordinary people’s lives better. When you look at the scorecard, it’s pretty impressive.”
That is what Sanborn, and scores of other Republican congressional candidates, are banking on as the midterm elections approach. “I’m just an ordinary guy who got mad,” he said. He’s counting on enough ordinary guys staying mad to sustain the Trump revolution. And therein lies the key to the election.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.