Congressional incumbents are typically most vulnerable right after their first term, and tight polls and big money flowing into New Hampshire’s 2nd Congressional District suggest that Democratic Congresswoman Ann Kuster is in that dangerous territory.
On a recent rainy day in Concord, Kuster took a spin through Peter’s Salon, a decades-old establishment in downtown Concord that employs more than two dozen workers. She’s there to press some flesh and highlight her support for small businesses in new Hampshire.
It’s a pretty friendly audience – just the salon’s black-clad stylists and owner Peter Kapos, who wants to raise the minimum wage.
“And really, a rising tide lifts all boats,” Kuster says. “So I am here to commend him, and I am here to say I am in support of raising the federal minimum wage to ten dollars and ten cents. I think it’s something we should aspire to for everyone.”
Asked what she thinks this race is about, Kuster's first response is an attack against her Republican challenger, Marilinda Garcia. She raises the specters of Garcia’s support for big cuts in government spending and limits on abortion rights.
“My opponent is very, very extreme Tea Party out of the mainstream, and I don’t think her views coincide with the views of most voters,” Kuster says. "Most voters worry about jobs and the economy, and that’s what I’ve been working on for the past two years….”
Garcia and her allies, meanwhile, are trying to exploit some of Kuster’s political stumbles, such as the news early in her term that she was late paying her property taxes several years in a row.
That was followed later by a badly fumbled answer to a question on U.S. policy in Benghazi, Libya.
And Garcia mocks Kuster for avoiding open forums by toting a cardboard cutout of the incumbent to town halls she’s staged around the state.
But most of all, Garcia is staking her campaign on the idea that Kuster is too close to President Obama, whose popularity has sunk to new lows this year. Kuster handed Republicans an opening early this year during an appearance on NHPR’s The Exchange.
“I am, I would say, probably one of the president’s strongest supporters in the entire United States Congress,” she told NHPR’s Laura Knoy. “And that will get me in trouble probably with people who are not happy with the president.”
These days, Kuster is at pains to distance herself from the president.
Talking about the Affordable Care Act at a Chamber of Commerce forum in Nashua last week, she said, "I’ve taken some votes frankly that are controversial in Washington and standing up to the president and saying this isn’t working for people, this isn’t working in New Hampshire, and we need to give people more time and improve upon it, rather than just shoving it down people’s throats.”
In Congress, Kuster voted “yes” on several Republican-sponsored bills related to the Affordable Care Act that were opposed by most Democrats. The president’s office said one of those measures would “sabotage” the health care law.
And she’s tried to burnish her centrist credentials by joining two bipartisan caucuses, including one headed by Florida Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy. Such moves have cost her some good will among progressives who had backed her strongly in previous elections.
“She was part of that letter Patrick Murphy sent out which sent strong signals to progressives that some Democrats might be willing to compromise on Social Security and Medicare,” said Dean Barker, former editor of Blue Hampshire, a liberal blog. “That was a pretty clear indication that the person in office isn’t the same person we were pushing as a progressive Democrat.”
But in a district that has swung narrowly between Republican and Democratic control over the last three elections, Kuster’s efforts to seem centrist aren't surprising to observers like Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire.
Scala says the contest may boil down to whether anti-Obama sentiment is strong enough to propel frustrated voters to the polls to oppose Kuster. Or whether some swing voters become convinced that Garcia really is too far to the right.
“Anne Kuster hopes to get those voters who are conservative, economically, but socially liberal - pro-choice, Republican-leaning women,” Scala said.
Scala adds that the district’s demographics have been trending to the Democrats’ advantage. That could help Kuster as Democrats higher on the ticket, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Gov. Maggie Hassan, help to turn out the base – and women voters, in particular, on election day.