As Beto campaigns, New Hampshire looks for rock-ribbed answers, not fluff

Why We Wrote This

An early political hurdle in the U.S. presidential race is the savvy New Hampshire electorate. Is Beto O’Rourke’s cheery enthusiasm enough for the Texas Democrat to win over skeptical voters seeking substance too? 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke meets with voters at The Common Man Inn, on March 20 in Claremont, New Hampshire. It is his first visit to the state.

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Beto O’Rourke almost became a senator in Texas by dint of shoe-leather politics. He visited all 254 counties and exuded authenticity by driving himself to campaign events. Will that approach play well nationally?

This week New Hampshire voters got their first look at Mr. O’Rourke. The Granite State has a long history of vetting presidential candidates. Voters aren’t easily impressed or fooled. “We’re known for asking hard questions,” says Molly Kelly, a former New Hampshire state senator. “We are the first presidential primary in the nation, and we don’t take that lightly. We understand the responsibility and the seriousness of the issues and our voice here.”

How did Mr. O’Rourke do? Keene State College professor Marie Duggan likes him enough to have donated $10 to his losing Texas Senate bid last fall. But it’s early in the 2020 race, and she’s skeptical. “I would like my country back, and I need a candidate who is strong enough to get it back,” she says, adding later, “[Mr. O’Rourke] might not have the backbone to tackle some of these things.”

When Frank Fahey arrives to see Beto O’Rourke in Claremont, New Hampshire, there isn’t a single chair left at The Common Man Inn.

Mr. Fahey is standing in the back with his cane, jammed between journalists and doughnuts and a man who remembers seeing Ronald Reagan campaigning on his town’s store porch, when someone points out an empty bench up front. And that’s how Mr. Fahey scores not only a premium perch but the last question here for Mr. O’Rourke, who is testing out his star power on Granite State voters after announcing his 2020 bid last week.

Mr. Fahey, a retired educator, wants to know how the former Texas congressman will be able to back up his “wonderful ideas” and fend off President Donald Trump. “One thing I’ve heard him say about you is you wave your arms around and you’re crazy. You do wave your arms around, but you’re not crazy,” says Mr. Fahey. “How are you going to put meat on the bone?”

For seven decades, New Hampshire voters have taken very seriously their role in vetting presidential candidates. Every candidate must crisscross the state – the first in the nation to hold a primary – meeting voters face to face. This is America’s tried-and-tested forge of retail politics. Given their personal experiences with candidates, New Hampshire voters may be the most politically savvy citizens in this democracy. And they don’t tend to fall for fluff. These are people who shovel themselves out from underneath winter, grow up going to town meetings, and take to heart the state’s motto, “Live Free or Die.”

So if any state is going to probe whether Mr. O’Rourke has the chops to back up his charm, it’s probably New Hampshire.

“We’re known for asking hard questions,” says Molly Kelly, a former New Hampshire state senator and the 2018 Democratic candidate for governor. “We are the first presidential primary in the nation, and we don’t take that lightly. We understand the responsibility and the seriousness of the issues and our voice here.”

To Mr. Fahey’s question, Mr. O’Rourke confesses that yes, he does wave his hands around. Then, for all of 60 seconds or so, he manages to ditch the political jazzercise before his knees start bouncing and his arms start flying and once again he’s throwing his whole body into an audacious bid to become the leader of the free world.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Tyler Sweeney (l.) is the New Hampshire director for the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan group that advocates for a balanced federal budget. He joins New Hampshire voters seeing Beto O’Rourke for the first time at The Common Man Inn, in Claremont, New Hampshire.

 

Close encounters, with many a candidate

Ask New Hampshire voters whom they’ve personally met over the years, and they’ll likely rattle off half a dozen names. In the long parade of would-be presidents, they’ll recall encounters with Jimmy Carter or Jesse Jackson, or the time Michelle Obama spoke right here, right outside the Keene State College Student Center where this Tuesday everyone has been waiting for more than an hour and a half for Mr. O’Rourke to arrive.

David Bell, a retired elementary school teacher, says that at this point he’s interested in the gut reaction he feels to a candidate more than any specific policy points. He recalls the visceral reaction he had to another fresh-faced young hopeful, John Edwards, who struck him as a “total fraud.”

Sitting next to him is Bob Englund, a retired physician who along with his wife has hosted a dozen candidates for fundraisers. He likes Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar the best so far but says it’s thrilling to have more than a dozen “interesting, smart, articulate, honest, respectable people running for the highest office in the country” and all coming to meet voters like him.

He’s not too worried about policy proposals at this point either.

“When Barack was starting his campaign, he was not able to answer specific questions,” says Dr. Englund. “And as far as I’m concerned, Barack Obama turned out to be a very good candidate. He was honest, kind; he never tweeted, and no president should ever tweet.”

Keene State College economics professor Marie Duggan likes Mr. O’Rourke and sent him $10 for his losing Senate bid last fall, but she wants to see some mettle – and she’s not sure he has it.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke campaigns at Keene State College on March 19 in Keene, New Hampshire. With the first primary in the U.S., the state has long been a must stop for presidential candidates.

“I feel like I would like my country back, and I need a candidate who is strong enough to get it back,” she says, waiting on a flight of stairs at Keene State, overlooking hundreds of people milling around waiting for Mr. O’Rourke to arrive.

Eighteen years after getting her Ph.D., Professor Duggan is still paying off student loans, and now her teenage kids are about to enter college. Her boyfriend’s health insurance provider refused to pay out when he got sick last year and then shut down its operations in the state. She opened her home to a kid whose grandparent died from an overdose, underscoring the seriousness of New Hampshire’s opioid crisis. She’s tried to get help through Medicare and Social Security, but even this college professor has been stymied. 

As she sees it, life has become unbearable for the middle class.

“A candidate has to show me that they’re going to fix the system and not just that they’re a nice guy,” she says. “[Mr. O’Rourke] might not have the backbone to tackle some of these things,” she adds. “People say Klobuchar is nasty with her staff, but I can see her breaking up a big bank.”

 

First, a desire to bring together

It’s hard to imagine the charming Mr. O’Rourke breaking anything apart. He repeatedly talks about his desire to bring the country together, to put country above party, to think of each other first as Americans before labeling one another as Democrats or Republicans. Americans need to work together, he says, to overcome the pressing challenges facing the country and the world, from climate change to income inequality, immigration to racial discrimination.

“All this is only possible if all of us come together,” Mr. O’Rourke says, speaking in a breathless, unpunctuated string of ideas, a freight train of fervor that plows right through the loud cheers. “The greatest mechanism humankind has ever devised for tackling challenges of this scope and scale is democracy. And our democracy right now is so badly broken.”

The style of the El Paso, Texas, native has evoked comparisons to another young, charismatic Irish Catholic who rose to national prominence: Robert F. (Bobby) Kennedy. In an era of particularly nasty politics, many see in Mr. O’Rourke a fundamentally decent man – someone they would like to have over for dinner, someone they can trust.

He drives his own rental car, he arrives late, he fumbles – “sorry, I keep kicking you,” he said mid-speech in Keene, New Hampshire, apologizing to a journalist holding a sound boom near his knees.

He’s not always sure of the exact statistics he’s referencing – “mas o menos,” he says, throwing in a little Spanish, and makes his point anyway. He doesn’t use notes. He doesn’t pull out a 10-point plan for how exactly he would fix any of the big problems, at least not yet. And that’s just fine with some people.

“I’d rather have that than someone who has set ideas without talking to people,” says Joan Davies, a resident of New Hampshire since 1985. “They have plenty of that in Washington, D.C., already.”

It’s early in the 2020 campaign. With more than a dozen declared Democratic candidates, Mr. O’Rourke has done well in raising funds, pulling in more than any other candidate on the first day ($6.1 million). But at this point, only 8 percent of likely Democratic voters nationally name Mr. O’Rourke their first-choice candidate, according to the latest Morning Consult weekly poll. On March 30, after swings through some early primary states, Mr. O’Rourke plans to “lay out his priorities” at his official campaign launch in his hometown.

O’Rourke’s first visit to New Hampshire, where he visited all 10 counties, generated headlines and some enthusiastic crowds. But the state’s hard-to-impress voters, who know the marathon parade of Democratic contenders is just beginning, aren’t in a rush to commit to one candidate, however much they enjoy meeting him or her.

“He’s bright; he’s got wonderful ideas; he’s got 150 percent energy,” says Mr. Fahey, who asked the last question during the campaign stop in Claremont. But, he adds, “I would be afraid I would be throwing away my vote.”

Mr. Fahey sees a complacency among Democrats that could draw out the nomination process and prevent them from mounting a successful challenge to Mr. Trump. When the former teacher visits more well-to-do areas of the state for continuing education classes, people seem out of touch with the income disparity he sees in rural areas and the loyalty many there feel for Mr. Trump.

“I’m worried he’s going to get elected again, very worried,” says Mr. Fahey as Mr. O’Rourke wraps up his post-speech selfie scrum and thanks everyone profusely on his way out the door. A campaign aide sweeps him into the Dodge minivan driver’s seat, and the Beto show gets back on the road.

“As he’s in New Hampshire, he’s going to see that this is a little bit different territory. You’ve got to come with a little more substance,” says Tyler Sweeney, the New Hampshire director for the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan group that advocates for a balanced federal budget. “And I think this is where he is going to shape his policy."

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