PORTSMOUTH, N.H. – Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., always knew he faced a challenging re-election this year.
"This is always going to be a close race. And New Hampshire always has close elections and very competitive races. This district has swung back and forth between the two parties many times during the last 10 or 20 years," the two-term Democratic representative in battleground New Hampshire’s swingy First Congressional District told Fox News this week.
"I think that’s a good thing. It’s good for candidates running for office to be accountable to the voters they seek to represent," added Pappas, who’s long been targeted by House Republicans as they aim to flip the seat from blue to red as part of their mission to win back the chamber’s majority in next month’s midterm elections.
Challenging the 42-year-old Pappas is 25-year-old Karoline Leavitt, a veteran of former President Donald Trump’s press shop, who would become the youngest woman ever elected to Congress if she wins in November.
With Democrats facing historical headwinds — the party that wins the White House traditionally suffers major setbacks in the ensuing midterm elections — and a rough political climate fueled by record inflation, soaring crime and a border crisis and accentuated by President Biden’s rebounding but still underwater approval ratings, Leavitt has been laser-focused on handcuffing Pappas to Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Spotlighting inflation, Leavitt told Fox News that voters in the district are "feeling it every single day in their pocketbooks, they’re feeling it with their electric bills, which are four times as high as they were last year. We are feeling it every single month."
Taking aim at "Chris Pappas, Joe Biden, and Nancy Pelosi’s policies," Leavitt argued that "voters are feeling the very real and scary repercussions of this administration’s agenda" and charged that "we literally cannot afford another two years of Chris Pappas being in office."
On Thursday, during their first general election debate, Leavitt noted that Pappas "has voted to greenlight more than $5.5 trillion in new spending over the past two years" and claimed "that is the reason that we have record high inflation."
Firing back, Pappas noted, "What the legislation that we just approved does, which Karoline opposes, is lowers the cost of prescription drugs for families that are struggling right now to afford their medications. It makes health care more affordable. It approves energy rebates and tax credits for homeowners to help lower their energy bills."
"We did it in a way that is fully paid for," he added. "The bill will lower the deficit."
And Pappas, like many endangered Democrats this cycle, has showcased his differences with the Biden administration.
"I think the Biden administration did not move swiftly enough along with the Fed to address inflation last year. They needed a much more forward-leaning, aggressive posture against inflation," he told Fox News on Wednesday.
The latest public opinion polls in the race indicate a very competitive contest, with Pappas holding the edge. And the Cook Report, a top nonpartisan political handicapper, and the Fox News 2022 Power Rankings both rate the showdown a toss-up. The race is getting plenty of national money, with more than $12 million shelled out by outside groups, making the election one of the most expensive House battles this cycle.
To get to the general election, Leavitt highlighted her Trump and MAGA Republican credentials as she edged the field in early September in a crowded and combustible GOP primary. She also touted her pro-life stance on abortion and reiterated her support of former President Donald Trump’s unproven claims that the 2020 presidential election was riddled with massive fraud and stolen.
Pappas has been relentless in framing Leavitt as too far to the right for one of the nation’s premier swing districts.
"I think Karoline Leavitt is out of step with most voters in the First Congressional District," Pappas asserted in a Fox News interview. "People here want someone who’s going to be a bipartisan problem solver in Washington, and we’ve shown how we’ve done that. I’m rated as one of the more bipartisan members of the House of Representatives. We’ve done it on veterans’ issues, small business issues, on investing in our nation’s infrastructure. Karoline Leavitt opposes bills like the infrastructure law."
He also took aim at Leavitt over "her record opposing a women’s right to choose [although Leavitt insists if elected she won’t support a GOP-backed federal abortion ban bill], being an election denier who still thinks the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. These are dangerous positions that are not supported by the vast majority of folks in New Hampshire."
But University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala isn’t sure if that argument will sell with voters in the district, as he pointed to Pappas’ predecessor, former longtime Democratic Rep. Carol Shea Porter.
"Everyone said Shea-Porter was too far to the left to represent the district [when she first won election to Congress in 2006]. And guess what — she went on to represent the district off-and-on for the next decade," Scala noted. "What I learned from that is you don’t necessarily need — even in a swing district — someone who is a centrist, moderate candidate. It’s possible that either party could do equally well with someone who is further out on the extremes of the party. And I think we’re seeing that playing out in the First District."
Scala said one of the things he finds so interesting about the race in the First District is Leavitt’s poise and ability to stay on message.
"She’s been the whole package," he said. "She is a very disciplined candidate with a theory of how to win and she has stuck to the plan. You don’t see that in every candidate, no matter how old they are."