In a Tight State Senate Race, What Does Trump Have To Do With Anything?

Aug 12, 2016

Let’s just get this out of the way: it’s okay if you’ve been so distracted by the presidential race that you forgot about the state primary coming up in September. But now that we’re good, let’s look at one big question hanging over those smaller, state races:  what impact will the top of the ballot—the campaign everybody is thinking about—have on local elections? 

Twenty-four seats in the New Hampshire Senate: 24 races. Some of those races will be pretty unexciting, others are looking pretty competitive. And the tightest one of them all might be District 24, which hugs the Seacoast from New Castle to Seabrook.

Just on the Republican side, voters in that district have four candidates to choose from in the primary next month.

There’s Ray Tweedie, mortgage broker and the youngest guy in the race:

“Well, I’m a Millennial. So I’m the next generation of the Republican party.”

Steve Kenda, software executive:

“We send a lot of money down to Washington DC, they wash it, they keep their slice of it, then send back disproportionately lower back to New Hampshire.”

Former university dean and businessman Dan Innis:

“I have a humble background, too, I grew up in a poor family, I’m the first in my family to go to college, paid my own way…”

And Jim Maggiore, who’s been in local government as a town selectman for ten years:

“After doing this for ten years, not by choice but because I was asked? It gets in your blood.”

On the other side it’s just one candidate, doctor and State Rep. Tom Sherman. But right now—let’s focus on the Republicans, and why that side of the ballot is so crowded this year.

To answer that, we have to go back a few years, to 2011 when these latest senate districts were drawn. Republicans held the majority in the state house that year, so they got to draw a new map of the state Senate districts — one would just so happen to work in their favor in future elections.

In some cases that meant packing districts with a lot of voters of one party. But when it came to a strongly democratic one like District 24—it meant moving things around enough so that Republicans could be competitive there.  

Related story: The Most Important Campaign This Year Might Be the One You've Heard Nothing About

Today District 24 is almost evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, one of the only Senate districts you can say that about. 

So this year will be a kind of test of what that means, because this is the first election since the new District 24 was created, more than four years ago, that the seat is open. The senator who’s held it for the past three terms—Republican Nancy Stiles—says she’s ready to pass the torch, and that the person taking her place will need to be as moderate and able to get along with both parties as she was.

“I can’t tell you how many Democrats I’ve run across who said ‘Nancy I’ve always crossed over to vote for you,’” Stiles says.

We met in her favorite coffee shop in Portsmouth, which was still in her district when she started as senator. Stiles says when she thinks about how the fight for her seat’s going to play out, she can’t help but link it to the tone of the election most voters are paying attention to—the presidential race.

“I’m hoping that the campaign doesn’t get overly nasty I think it’ going to unfortunately.”

“Because that’s the top of the ticket?” I ask.

“Yep. I’m hoping state and down the ballot keep things positive,” says Stiles.

But, if you’re one of four people in this GOP primary, what do you do when the guy at the top of the ticket is setting what many people are calling an overly nasty tone? Are you with him?

Three out of these four guys say hands down, they’re for the Republican nominee. For candidate Dan Innis, that support is pragmatic. He knows a lot of voters like Trump and they want to hear he does too.

“You know, and they just want to verify that,” Innis says.

“Do you feel comfortable giving that satisfaction to people?” I ask.

“Oh sure, yeah. ‘Do you support Trump?’ Well of course!”

For candidate Steve Kenda, on the other hand, the connection to the presidential candidate is almost personal.

“In some ways I have some sympathy because I’m like him,” Kenda says. “I’m a business guy, I’m a politician. I’m always concerned about putting my foot in my mouth or saying something that’s going to reflect negatively.”

Candidate Ray Tweedie’s fully in the Trump camp too. But candidate Jim Maggiore says he’s not there yet.

“I want to vote for the Republican party, but I have been having a tough time saying, 'I'm going to check that box next to Trump right now,' ” Maggiore says.

Because, he says, a lot of voters are put off by Trump.

“They want decency, honesty, integrity, the willingness to listen, negotiate, compromise, and do it in a civil way," Maggiore says.

So that’s one question: How much will the tone of the presidential race bleed into the tone of a state Senate race like District 24’s?

The next question is: How will it shape who ends up winning the district?

And that second question might be out of these guys’ hands, Dan Innis says.

“I don’t think we know this cycle what will be the impact," he says. "And I think it’s conceivable Trump can win.”

But Ray Tweedie has a theory: Voters are more interested in what he’ll actually do if he gets in office.

“People may have their opinion about the top of the ticket," Tweedie says. "But for the first time in the last five or six years, people really care who’s going to be their state senator, because they see these choices directly impact them.”

But just chatting with some random people who call District 24 home, it's not clear that many even know there’s a state primary coming up in September.

Beth Giera tells me, “I did, I’ve been watching it very closely and I’m not impressed.”

But it turns out Giera’s talking about the national Senate race, between Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Gov. Maggie Hassan.

“And what about even lower on the ballot, have you registered those guys?” I ask.

“I have not," Giera says.  

Same with Jim Baker, who’s out doing his grocery shopping.

“Not the Senate race internally, no not much," he says. "The Senate race on a national level, absolutely. “

And as for what’s going on in politics, across the whole ballot, top to bottom, Baker says:

“It’s a mess!”

Whoever makes it to the general election will go up against Democratic State Rep. and doctor Tom Sherman. Dan Innis says he has just a few words for that opponent.

“I hear he’s a nice guy; I haven’t met him,” Innis says.  

Which is something you definitely won’t hear coming from the top of the ticket.