CONCORD, N.H. — It's been 16 years since there was an open seat in New Hampshire's 1st Congressional District — and now more than 16 candidates are hoping to fill it.
Back when Republican Rep. John E. Sununu left to run for U.S. Senate in 2002, eight Republicans and two Democrats sought to replace him in what had long been a reliably red district. But after flipping in each of the last four cycles, it's now a swing district in a swing state. The result? Eleven Democrats and six Republicans competing in Tuesday's primaries.
In 2016, the district both backed Donald Trump and re-elected Democrat Carol Shea-Porter, who is stepping down after four terms. First elected in 2006, she served two terms, then traded the seat back and forth with Republican Frank Guinta starting in 2010.
The Republican field hoping to replace her is led by former state Sen. Andy Sanborn and Eddie Edwards, former enforcement chief for the state liquor commission. The crowded Democratic side includes Shea-Porter's former chief of staff, Naomi Andrews, and Levi Sanders, son of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. But the clear front-runners have been Chris Pappas and Maura Sullivan.
Pappas is former state lawmaker who is serving his third term on the governor's Executive Council and runs a family restaurant in Manchester. Sullivan is a former Marine and Iraq war veteran who moved to New Hampshire last year after serving as an assistant secretary of veterans affairs and as a Pentagon official in the Obama administration.
Dante Scala, political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, sums it up as "Pappas, Sullivan and nine other people trying to pop up." He sees identity politics playing out in their race.
"You have Maura Sullivan who seems to be, on paper, the ideal candidate for New Hampshire's 1st District or any number of swing districts across the country: a well-educated, younger, female candidate and a veteran to boot," he said. "But then you also have Chris Pappas, an openly gay politician who has the support of a national LGBT group. That seems to be getting very little play so far, but I think that's significant as well."
Sullivan raised more money than the other 10 candidates combined, though her opponents point out that the vast majority of it flowed from out of state. Pappas, who raised about half as much, said he's proud that most of his cash came from New Hampshire. He also has the backing of the state's two Democratic U.S. senators and an array of other party officials.
"I'm grounded in the issues that people are concerned about," Pappas said in an interview. "I understand the lay of the land in New Hampshire in a way that I think allows me to give voice to those concerns in Washington and hit the ground running."
In a recent forum, Sullivan sought to align herself with the record number of women running in and winning primaries across the country, saying some people told her not to run because the seat "belonged to someone else."
"I think women around the country are really, really tired of being told to wait their turn," she said. But candidate Deaglan MacEachern quickly responded that it was unlikely anyone told Sullivan she shouldn't run because she's a woman, given that the state is currently represented by the nation's first all-female, all Democratic congressional delegation.
In an interview, Sullivan said voters aren't talking about her money or her lack of roots in the state.
"What I hear from Granite Staters is they're focused on who can keep their kids safe. They're worried about Trump, and attacks on our democracy. They're worried about health care," she said. "Women right now are terrified about reproductive rights. That's what I hear about from voters. Voters in New Hampshire are really smart, and they are going to pick the person who can keep our kids safe, who can fight really tough fights, and has the tenacity, track record and experience."
Sanders, who lives well outside the district and hasn't mounted much of a campaign, has hammered both Sullivan and Pappas on their lack of support for a Medicare for All, single-payer health care system. Though his father didn't endorse him, Sanders said he's the only candidate who has made connections with key like-minded members of Congress and can carry momentum forward on the issue.
"What does Chris Pappas believe in? I have not figured out what he believes in. He believes in the fact that he's got a good chicken finger and a good peppermint ice cream," Sanders told The Associated Press, referring to his opponent's restaurant. "Sorry, that's not gonna cut it."
There have been even more personal attacks on the Republican side, though the candidates general agreed on the issues, including doing away with the Affordable Care Act and cracking down on illegal immigration. Edwards, a Navy veteran and former police chief, would refuse to support Sanborn as a nominee, citing a sexually explicit comment Sanborn made to a Statehouse intern in 2013 and allegations that he frequently commented about an aide's dress and appearance.
"It's about the character and integrity of our party," said Edwards, who drew support from Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani. "We want to get back to a place where there is public virtue in our politics. That's not to say all men and women are angels, but we should expect a certain degree of honor and character in our politics."