Pete Buttigieg Woos ‘Future Former Republicans’ in New Hampshire

January 10, 2020by Tyler Pager
Mayor Pete Buttigieg holds a town hall campaign meeting in the Old South Church on Jan. 3, 2020 in Portsmouth, N.H. The church was filled to capacity. (Allison Dinner/Zuma Press/TNS)

NORTH CONWAY, N.H. — Pete Buttigieg likes to invite “future former Republicans” and independent voters into the fold, and the fiercely independent people of New Hampshire seem to be open to that offer.

In a state where residents cherish their “Live Free or Die” motto, 42% of voters are not affiliated with either the Democratic or Republican Party, and they range from progressive to conservative.

“They’re looking for a candidate that is selfless and authentic,” Judith Kaufman, the chairwoman of the Sullivan County Democratic Committee, said about independent voters.

So as Buttigieg crisscrossed New Hampshire during a four-day swing that ended this week, he tried to woo voters outside of the Democratic Party. Making inroads with independents may be a matter of survival nationally for the 37-year-old political neophyte, who has struggled to appeal to nonwhite voters and is banking on strong performances in Iowa and New Hampshire.

“I’m not pretending to be conservative, but I am offering a message that will involve and welcome Democrats, independents and a lot of these Republicans I talk to who are as disgusted as the rest of us by what’s happening in this White House under the banner of their party,” he said.

The message may be working in New Hampshire.

A Monmouth University poll released Thursday shows Buttigieg has doubled his support there since September and is now in a virtual tie with Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Buttigieg rose from 10% in September to 20% in the poll released Thursday. Biden was second with 19%, Sanders had 18% and Elizabeth Warren finished fourth with 15%. The margin of error was 4.9 percentage points.

Of the top tier candidates, Buttigieg has held the second most events in the state, only trailing Amy Klobuchar, according to a candidate tracker complied by New England Cable News.

Buttigieg’s rise coincides with his strategic shift toward the center. Despite starting his presidential campaign with a pitch that hued closer to the most progressive candidates, he was quickly overtaken by Warren and Sanders. Now, he is battling Biden and, increasingly, Klobuchar for the moderate lane.

More evidence of Buttigieg’s efforts to appeal to independents and Republicans: He will participate in a Fox News town hall on Jan. 26 in Des Moines, a week before the Iowa caucuses.

A former Republican voter says Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, could appeal to those who have been turned off by the hyper-polarization that has dominated American politics in recent years.

“I think he’s moderate enough that anyone who’s in the middle in the road, who’s not totally polarized would look favorably at Pete,” said Ken Ackerson, 74, who grew up as a Republican but has been a registered Democrat for about 20 years.

The lack of a serious Republican primary may also help Buttigieg. Kathy Sullivan, the former chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, predicted that moderate independents would play a larger role in this year’s Democratic primary, which is open to all voters.

“Independents can pull Democratic ballots, and the general sense here is that this year they will pull Democratic ballots because there’s not much happening on the Republican side,” she said. “They can have a more moderating influence on the results.”

Still, Buttigieg faces serious competition from both wings of the party. On the left, Sanders is looking to recapture the coalition that helped him trounce Hillary Clinton in 2016, when he won more than 60% of the vote. Now, Sanders is battling Warren to capture the progressive wing of the party, and both are looking to benefit from the next-door-neighbor status.

At the same time, Biden claims the establishment mantle and his multiple presidential campaigns have built up a reserve of familiarity and good will. On Monday, he rolled out a list of 100 independent voters in New Hampshire who were backing his bid, including former Republican Senator Gordon Humphrey and former state First Lady Dorothy Peterson, who was also a Republican.

Mark Sinofsky, who left the Republican Party after President Donald Trump was elected and is now an independent voter, worries about Buttigieg’s lack of Washington experience. While he is drawn to Buttigieg’s intellect, he is still undecided, and the moderate candidates, including Biden and Buttigieg, are still high on his list.

“I think he’s a great, rational speaker,” Sinofsky, a 59-year-old resident of Amherst, New Hampshire, said after Buttigieg’s town hall in Nashua.

Buttigieg appeals to Republicans in part by avoiding the all-encompassing policies of Warren and Sanders. He opposes Medicare for All, and he instead supports creating a public option and preserving a role for private insurance. He does not support making college free for everyone and he has called for more moderate tax proposals than Warren and Sanders.

Moreover, as tensions escalated with Iran last week, Buttigieg increasingly cited his naval intelligence background, seeking to cut into Biden’s message that he was the best prepared to serve as commander in chief. Throughout his swing in New Hampshire, Buttigieg took Trump’s foreign policy head on, criticizing the president for his “chest-thumping militarism” and raising questions about the strategy behind the strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian general.

“I’m not here to say that my qualifications are a prerequisite, but I will say that they make me extremely aware of the consequences of decisions made in the White House Situation Room,” Buttigieg told reporters.

For Gil Estey, a Vietnam veteran and an independent voter, Buttigieg’s military experience was a key factor in his decision to support him.

“I’m going to back a veteran,” said Estey of Richmond, New Hampshire. “Someone who has dodged bullets.”

His wife, Jane Estey, who is also supporting Buttigieg, added: “He can come up with answers just like that. The older ones, they’re like ‘uhhhhhh,’ and they have to think.”

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©2020 Bloomberg News

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