'Encouraged to Run,' Sullivan Mulled Multiple Congressional Districts Before N.H. Move

Mar 1, 2018

There’s a phrase political reporters often lean on when describing Democratic congressional candidate Maura Sullivan: “Right out of central casting.”

Sullivan is a Marine and a Harvard grad who served multiple posts in the Obama administration. So, yeah, central casting seems accurate.

And yet, there’s a very noticeable hole in her resume that has been tripping up some New Hampshire voters lately who are weighing their options in the 1st Congressional District--there’s not much on Sullivan’s resume about the Granite State.

Sullivan moved to New Hampshire last summer, and said she was surprised months later when Rep. Carol Shea-Porter announced she was retiring. But NHPR has learned Sullivan had considered running in multiple congressional districts before her move to New Hampshire.

Sullivan is one of eight Democrats running in the 1st District, dubbed the “swingiest” of swing districts in the country. The seat has literally alternated between Republicans and Democrats for over a decade. This cycle, the district is a must-watch in the national race for control of Congress, and Democrats in New Hampshire are desperate to keep the seat blue.

Desperation is not an exaggeration. On a recent Wednesday night in February, more than 50 Democrats showed up at the Exeter Inn to hear Sullivan speak - the primary isn’t until September.

Sullivan looked out on the audience from the podium, sipping tea from a pink, Yeti travel mug. She told voters about her childhood in public schools, leaving out the name of her hometown or school. She talked a lot about her time in the military, including her deployment in Iraq, which she said taught her a lot about how government works.

“What I saw was that you had leaders in Washington that were sending often times other peoples’ kids to a war we shouldn't have been in, without a plan to win and without the resources to succeed,” Sullivan said.

Voters nodded along with her short speech and seemed impressed. But when it came time for questions, one voter stood out.

“I’m guessing in the back of my mind that someone’s gonna say, ‘she just moved here, what does she know about New Hampshire, what do we know about her?” the voter said, adding that she saw Sullivan as an “unknown quantity.”

Maura Sullivan, a Portsmouth Democrat running for Congress, tells a group of Granite Staters why she is a candidate.
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

Sullivan is likely to face many similar questions as she travels around the district. She was born and raised in Evanston, Illinois, and she recently moved to New Hampshire from Washington, D.C.. She bought a house in Portsmouth with her fiance Marc last June, just a few months before Shea-Porter announced she was retiring.

Sullivan insists that Shea Porter’s retirement was a total shock to her, just as it was to everyone else around the state.

Here’s how Sullivan answered that voter in Exeter.

“Really, the first opportunity I had to put down roots anywhere, we chose here. And we chose here because we loved the people we met here and we wanted to be part of this community. Plain and simple. It’s the first home I’ve ever owned, it’s where Marc and I wanna raise our family and uh, we’re really looking forward to doing that,” Sullivan said.

But family decisions aside, running for Congress has been on Sullivan’s radar for years, and not just in New Hampshire.

Just last spring, Sullivan’s name appeared in Chicago news stories as a potential candidate in the Illinois 6th Congressional District race.

This is actually how this reporter first found out about Sullivan. Before I moved back to New Hampshire last year, I covered politics in Illinois. And through multiple sources I’ve learned that Sullivan reached out and sought meetings with Illinois political heavyweights as she considered moving back to her home state to run for Congress. I’m told she was actually considering two Illinois districts: The 6th and the 3rd.

One of the most notable meetings Sullivan had was with Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a powerful Illinois congresswoman and known political kingmaker in the Chicago suburbs.

“I did meet her in my office, she came, she came to talk to me,” Schakowsky said. “I’ve been with Maura a number of different times and I consider her a friend."

Schakowsky says she encouraged Sullivan to run for Congress in Illinois’s 6th district because of Sullivan’s background in public service.

“I said to her at the time, and I’m convinced still to this day that this was gonna be a very tough race with a lot of competition and it didn’t work out for her. She decided, I think mainly for personal reasons that this was not a race she was gonna be in,” she said.

There were other forces pushing Sullivan toward running in Illinois.

I’ve been told by multiple sources that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has been interested in Sullivan for awhile. The DCCC wouldn’t comment on so-called “recruiting,” but according to two people I spoke with, they were considering Sullivan for those two districts in Illinois as well as Virginia’s 10th district.

In modern politics, national party strategists often see potential candidates kind of like chess pieces, and they see the country like a chess board.

“I mean I think that they were literally just like, we’ll put you somewhere, right and that’s how they operate,” said Emily Cherniack, co-founder and executive director of New Politics, a bipartisan group that helps veterans and other public servants break into politics.

As Sullivan was flooded with all these potential political opportunities, Cherniack’s group was one of the places she turned to as she waded through her options.

“For us it was really about what feels authentic to you and how do you want to serve. Those are always the questions that we ask any of our candidates,” Cherniack said. “For Maura it was really, where do you feel authentically connected to and….where do you want to live? Where do you and Marc want to settle down and raise a family and start your life.”

So in the end, an Illinois native moved from Washington, D.C., to New Hampshire.

And Sullivan has been raising money like crazy, mostly from donors outside of New Hampshire.

While running for office outside a candidate’s home state is not a new phenomena (Hillary Clinton and Scott Brown come to mind), for the Sullivan campaign, the residency conversation is clearly a touchy subject.

Sullivan insists the conversations about running for office in other states started with other people.

“Lauren, again, I think I’ve said this four or five times,” Sullivan said, in an interview. “But I’ve got a lot of encouragement over the years to consider running for office.”

I asked Sullivan multiple times if she considered running in other states, and each time - even when I told her about conversations I had with people who met with her - she repeated the same answer, that other people encouraged her.

“People have encouraged me for years to run for something or run for Congress, if you look around the country right now, there’s a lot of women that are being recruited and a lot of veterans being recruited and I served at a pretty senior level in the Obama administration, so you know, the notion that someone might ask me to run for Congress …” Sullivan said, trailing off.

Congressional hopeful Maura Sullivan, a Portsmouth Democrat, speaks to 1st District voters.
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

New Hampshire voters say they are listening closely to how genuinely Sullivan tells her New Hampshire origin story.

Back at the Exeter Inn, voter Eileen Flockhart said she was really impressed with Sullivan’s credentials, but she’s worried voters will be bothered by how recently she came to New Hampshire.

“It’s sort of like, maybe you’re a little presumptuous to say ‘but I’m good,’” Flockhart said. “But we’re from New Hampshire. You know, we need to know, what do you know about us and how comfortable are we with you?”

But Flockhart said if voters are deciding between a capable candidate and one who's been here for decades, they might be attracted by a strong resume that seems right out of central casting.