If you had to describe New Hampshire’s congressional elections in one word, “rematch” would be a good choice.
In the race to Congress two years ago, the distance between Kuster and Bass was almost photo-finish-worthy: about 3,500 votes. UNH Survey Center Director Andy Smith says this year, it could be just as close.
“The second district race has been seen by the national organizations as probably the most competitive race in the country," Smith says. "So when both Republicans and Democrats are angling for potential control of the House, this is seen as an absolutely critical race.”
Part of what makes New Hampshire’s Second Congressional District so competitive is its makeup. It’s the larger of the state’s two districts—more or less the western half of the state, north-to-south. It leans more Democratic than the First CD. And Smith says, in the mid-90's, when Bass was first elected, that was actually good for him.
“Charlie Bass has always been seen as a moderate Republican, and when Democrats didn’t think they could really take the seat…they were happy with Charlie Bass. He was a moderate Republican, he was pro-choice, a pro-environmental Republican, and that was fine with them,” Smith says.
But at the same time, Bass has never pleased everyone. Conservatives have always been suspicious that he wasn’t a true believer. Meanwhile, staunch Democrats always wanted him gone. And they got their wish when Paul Hodes unseated Bass in 2006. Bass sat out 2008—another strong year for Democrats—but mounted a comeback in 2010. And, at the time, he did his best to embrace the growing trend in his party.
“As far as the Tea Party movement’s concerned, I love 'em," Bass said in a conference call. "God bless every single one of them, because you know what their agenda is? Exactly the same as mine: They want a new environment in Washington.”
Now, like many Republicans, Bass isn’t talking up the Tea Party anymore.
But to watch him walk into the Jaffrey-Rindge Rotary Club is to watch a politician on familiar ground. He was raised in nearby Peterborough. On the same property where his father, Congressman Perkins Bass, and his grandfather, Governor Robert Bass, also grew up. And here, he’s not seven-term “Congressman Bass.” As he prepares to give his stump speech, a Rotarian decides he's ripe for a bit of ribbing.
“Charlie," he shouts, "Want me to recommend a barber for ya?!"
Not skipping a beat, Bass responds, "Boy, I hope my wife doesn’t hear that! She’s a hairdresser!”
The line earns him some knowing laughs.
While Bass has deep roots in the southwestern corner of the state, the Concord area is Kuster’s home base. It’s where she practiced law and worked as a lobbyist. Her father was mayor there, and later an Executive Councilor. And her mother was a long-serving state senator. Until late in life, they were Republicans. For her part, Kuster’s a long-time Democrat.
At a bustling meeting of the Plymouth Area Democrats, Kuster found a sympathetic crowd. Take 25-year old computer programmer Andi LeBaron.
“She definitely has my vote," LeBaron says. "She seems to be very progressive, especially when it comes to innovation, when it comes to energy, and fiscal policies as well.”
Kuster was an early backer of President Obama four years ago. And she supports his agenda now. A core argument Kuster makes against Bass is his loyalty to Republican leaders--particularly on fiscal issues, like the controversial Ryan Budget. Her stump speech in Plymouth was no exception.
“Here’s what’s cut in the Ryan Budget: Education, innovation, infrastructure," Kuster said. "Honestly. And then they’re going to be surprised that we can’t pull out of a recession? Our economy’s going to go right downhill from there. We cut 10 million students with Pell grants."
"Hi Richard, my name's John. I'm a volunteer calling with Charlie Bass for Congress..."
In a strip mall on the outskirts of Concord, Bass supporters are working the phones. This is campaign headquarters. Volunteers are stuffing envelopes and putting together yard signs. Congressman Bass is there as well. And he takes exception to Kuster’s characterization of his record.
“These charges that have been levied against me about cutting Pell grants and Medicare, they’re basically untruthful. They’re not based upon any specific vote, except for the budget vote, which is a statement of direction for government," Bass says.
Like pretty much all members of Congress--in both parties--Bass almost always votes with leadership. He voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, for example. And he wants to extend Bush tax cuts for top earners, on the grounds that it would be good for small business. But Bass is also quick to point out that he was one of eight congressmen who sponsored a bipartisan budget. It was based on the work of the Simpson-Bowles Commission on fiscal responsibility. So, he says, he can work across the aisle.
But yes, he voted in favor of the hot-button Ryan Budget…on the same day.
“I voted for it because it provides the basis upon which we can have a negotiation with the Senate. If they pass a budget," Bass says. "So that we can have a budget in this nation, and then go forward to get the debt, deficit, under control. With no budget, there’s no action.”
The Senate never passed a budget.
But there’s more to this race than policy—there’s a personal dimension as well. When Bass and Kuster were growing up, their families were friends and ran in the same political circles. Bass made his first run for Congress when he was 27-years old against Kuster’s mother, Susan McLane. That was back in 1980, and they both lost the Republican primary to Judd Gregg. Their shared history is something Bass took pains to stress at a recent debate.
“I will preface by saying I’ve known my friend Annie Kuster for virtually my whole life, and I do hope this next hour can be a discussion about substantive issues and differences we have, and won’t get to a personal level. I wouldn’t want to see that happen," Bass said.
But this race has had its ugly moments. There’s been increased tension between the two campaigns. Like when Kuster grabbed a video camera away from a Bass campaign worker “tracking” her at Vice President Joe Biden’s statehouse appearance.
The video shows Kuster walking with another woman. The tracker calls out "Annie!" several times. A lot of the confrontation after that point is muffled. Then, Kuster reacts to the tracker, and grabs his camera. And she doesn't give it back, saying, “I’ll call Charlie. And I'll tell him when he can have the camera back." The video ends a few seconds later with Kuster saying, "F-him!"
Kuster says the Bass staffer was being aggressive, and was out of line. Bass says these days, that’s just politics.
“I’ve had trackers walk up to me and thrust a camera less than a foot from me and ask me incendiary, nasty questions as I’m trying to say hello to people. And I just simply ignore them. Happens all the time,” Bass says.
And Kuster just doesn’t want to talk about it anymore, saying simply, “I don’t have any comment.”
Both Bass and Kuster say they’re issue-oriented candidates and therefore the best choice to fix the personality-fueled partisan gridlock in Washington. But their campaign ads belie that message.
There's the Bass ad show a Kuster look-alike tap-dancing "around her extreme partisan record" in a skirt suit. Yet another proclaims, "Annie Kuster's got the grabs. She grabbed a citizen's camera, and used profanity in public!"
Then there are the Kuster campaign ads. One shows an extreme close-up of a largemouth bass, "native to New Hampshire. Then there's Congressman Bass. He's found a new habitat: Washington." Yet another declares, "It's the same old politics from Congressman Bass, telling old lies."
And it’s not going to let up between now and Election Day. Outside groups are helping to make sure of that. As of late last week, the Federal Election Commission reports nearly $3 million in party and political action committee cash has flowed into the Second District.