One of the last Republican House primaries of the midterm cycle has emerged as a proxy battle between House GOP leaders and factions of the Republican party.
Candidates vying to face vulnerable Democratic Rep. Chris Pappas in New Hampshire’s 1st Congressional District are jockeying over how Trumpy and conservative they are, as millions of outside dollars are being poured into the race and attacks have gotten personal in the run-up to the Tuesday primary.
Matt Mowers, a former Trump appointee in the State Department, has the endorsement of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), as well as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.
His closest competition is Karoline Leavitt, a 25-year-old former press aide in the Trump White House and in House Republican Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik’s (R-N.Y.) congressional office, has endorsements from Stefanik, Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), as well as from Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mike Lee (R-Utah).
And she’s proven to be a strong fundraiser, bringing in more than $1.5 million during the primary cycle.
In response, the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with McCarthy, has poured more than $1.5 million into the race to support Mowers with digital and television ads, direct mail, phone calls and text messages. Mowers himself has raised $1.7 million, slightly more than Leavitt.
Leavitt has argued that her youth is a party-expanding asset. But well-funded forces are arguing that she is too young and inexperienced to flip the seat.
The Defending Main Street super PAC, part of a network of groups that supports more centrist Republican candidates, has pumped nearly $1.3 million into campaigning against Leavitt.
A television ad released by the super PAC just before Labor Day billed her as “immature and irresponsible,” featuring an old video of Leavitt saying, “Listen up, hoe bags,” before bursting into laughter.
The Republican Main Street Partnership PAC, another organization in the group’s network, endorsed Mowers.
Leavitt says the ad is a sign that the establishment is afraid of her.
“Voters are smart. The negative, desperate, disgusting smears that the establishment and these dirty money super PACs are waging against not only me, but my family, are completely backfiring,” Leavitt told The Hill in an interview. “Voters understand, thanks to President Trump, that when they are attacking you, it means you’re over the target and you’re winning.”
Mowers has also faced consistent attacks from his opponents, including in an ad from Leavitt focusing on the fact that he voted in both New Hampshire and New Jersey presidential primaries in 2016. The New Hampshire Attorney General’s office said that he did not violate the state’s law.
Mowers faced Pappas as the Republican nominee for the seat in 2020, losing by 5 points. This year, after redistricting, the nonpartisan election handicappers at the Cook Political Report say the seat is more of a toss-up.
Some internal and independent polls conducted last month showed Mowers with double-digit leads over Leavitt. But other surveys show a much more competitive race, with a late August poll from the University of New Hampshire finding Mowers leading at 26 percent and Leavitt at 24 percent support.
Other candidates in the crowded race are also pumping their conservative credentials.
Retired broadcast journalist Gail Huff Brown, wife of former Massachusetts U.S. Senator and New Zealand Ambassador under Trump Scott Brown, scored an endorsement from Fox News host Sean Hannity.
State Rep. Tim Baxter, another 25-year-old who is endorsed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), slightly defended Leavitt from the Main Street ad while also knocking her for arguing that her youth is an asset.
“I just don’t think that people should be campaigning on identity politics. I think you’re never too young or too old,” Baxter told The Hill, also knocking the outside spending. “People are sick of these politicians that are bought and paid for. The people of New Hampshire don’t want a pawn for the swamp as the representative in D.C.”
While different factions of the MAGA movement war with each other in the race, former President Trump himself has stayed silent. He endorsed Mowers in 2020.
But that has not kept candidates from making him central to the race. Trump’s name repeatedly came up at a recent primary debate.
Leavitt leaned into Trump’s unproven claims about the 2020 election, saying in the debate that she believes it was stolen from Trump and that President Biden did not win 81 million votes.
“That’s a preposterous claim,” she said.
The Mowers campaign went as far as to send out a mailer this week that pictured him alongside Trump, and featured the first part of Trump’s 2020 tweet in which he praised and endorsed Mowers — but cutting off the line about endorsements.
“Matt worked tirelessly with President Trump to secure the border, restore America’s energy independence and advance the America First agenda,” John Corbett, a spokesman for Matt Mowers, told The Hill in a statement. “In the days leading up to the primary, Matt is crisscrossing the district offering his solutions to fix the problems, like inflation and high gas prices, created by Joe Biden.”
Though Leavitt had previously said she would vote for McCarthy for House Speaker if she gets to Congress and Republicans would take back the House, she appears to have soured on him after his PAC’s mass spending.
“Kevin McCarthy and the establishment are spending millions and millions of dollars to buy the seat. So I won’t be very inclined to help the establishment when I get down there,” Leavitt told The Hill.