WASHINGTON — He calls her “fake MAGA Karoline” from “the swamp.” She calls him a “Fauci foot soldier” and a “pharma bro.”
A congressional primary in Recent Hampshire between two young, conservative former Trump staff members has divided MAGA Republicans and the party’s leaders within the House, devolving right into a bitter, expensive battle over who carries the mantle of Trumpism.
The race, in a highly competitive district currently held by a Democrat, shall be selected Tuesday. Its final result could determine whether Republicans have a likelihood at flipping the seat within the midterm elections in November as a part of their drive to reclaim the House majority. The competition has also highlighted an influence struggle within the party ranks that can shape what that majority might appear to be if Republicans take control.
Matt Mowers, 33, who worked on Donald J. Trump’s 2016 campaign, served him on the State Department and was endorsed by the previous president in an unsuccessful bid for a similar congressional seat in 2020. Mr. Mowers entered the race last 12 months because the presumed front-runner against Representative Chris Pappas of Recent Hampshire, who’s probably the most vulnerable Democrats within the country on this election cycle.
Mr. Mowers is viewed as a robust candidate with high name recognition within the state’s First Congressional District; he drew favorable coverage from right-wing news outlets like Breitbart and a well of endorsements from powerful conservative figures. They include Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the minority leader; Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 House Republican; Representative Jim Banks of Indiana; in addition to Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, the previous Trump campaign managers.
But despite all that, Mr. Mowers is facing a strident and surprisingly fierce challenge on his right from Karoline Leavitt, 25, a former assistant in Mr. Trump’s White House press office. She is backed by a number of hard-right Republicans in Congress, including Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Representatives Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Jim Jordan of Ohio and Elise Stefanik of Recent York, the No. 3 House Republican.
The race has turned less on any ideological divide between the candidates, who’ve few discernible differences on policy, than on style and tone. Where Mr. Mowers opts for nuanced, rigorously worded statements, Ms. Leavitt almost all the time reaches for probably the most extreme and provocative ones.
Her success at turning the first right into a neck-and-neck competition has underscored how in the present Republican Party, fealty to Mr. Trump isn’t all the time enough by itself to sway voters. What increasingly matters is a willingness to mimic his tactics, by adopting inflammatory language and making probably the most incendiary statements possible.
“Possibly partially because Leavitt got here out of the White House press operation, it’s like a second language to her,” Dante J. Scala, a political science professor on the University of Recent Hampshire, said of her ability to channel the style and rhetoric of the MAGA movement. “Her campaign has been the entire package, and that’s put Mowers to the wall.”
Take, as an illustration, Mr. Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen. When pressed about whether he agrees, Mr. Mowers has said he harbors concerns about voting “irregularities across the country.”
That was too wishy-washy for Ms. Leavitt, who repeats Mr. Trump’s falsehoods unequivocally.
“We’d like candidates who’re willing to talk truth concerning the election, who’re willing to keep off,” she said during an interview on the Conservative Political Motion Conference in February, where she also bragged that Facebook had removed an interview she had done with the previous Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon during which she asserted that the election had been stolen. “In case you’re not willing to say what happened in 2020, then, gosh, you don’t should be elected.”
Ms. Leavitt later accused Mr. Mowers of siding “with Joe Biden and the Democrats by refusing to face for election integrity and support audits.” She has also said she would support Mr. Jordan for speaker relatively than Mr. McCarthy, though she later said she would back Mr. McCarthy.
The State of the 2022 Midterm Elections
With the primaries winding down, each parties are beginning to shift their focus to the final election on Nov. 8.
At a recent debate, when asked whether he would support impeaching President Biden, Mr. Mowers said he would wish to have hearings to look into the problem. Ms. Leavitt said without qualification that she would support any impeachment charge against the president.
Each candidate has been savaging the opposite as a creature of Washington. Mr. Mowers’s campaign operates a “fake MAGA Karoline” website, which accuses her of getting “never held an actual job outside the swamp,” attending private school in Massachusetts and being registered to vote from the “penthouse” apartment where she lived in Washington before moving back to Recent Hampshire to run for office.
On a site operated by Ms. Leavitt’s campaign, titled “backdoor Matt,” the campaign refers to Mr. Mowers as a “Fauci foot soldier” for his role working within the administration for Dr. Deborah Birx, the previous White House coronavirus coordinator. It also refers to him as a “big pharma bro” who worked as a lobbyist for a pharmaceutical company.
“Matt Mowers is the swamp,” the web site proclaims, noting that he voted in two states — Recent Hampshire and Recent Jersey — within the 2016 Republican presidential primary.
The race has grown so close and so heated that it’s drowning out Recent Hampshire’s competitive Senate race, with ads from each campaigns blanketing the 5 p.m. news.
A recent poll conducted by the University of Recent Hampshire Survey Center showed Mr. Mowers leading Ms. Leavitt by a razor-thin margin: 26 percent to 24 percent, barely greater than the two.2 percent margin of error, though 26 percent of likely voters said they remained undecided. A 3rd Trump-aligned candidate, Gail Huff Brown — whose husband, the previous Massachusetts senator Scott Brown, served as Mr. Trump’s ambassador to Recent Zealand — was trailing with 16 percent. Two other lesser-known candidates have gained little traction within the race.
Money has also poured into the competition, with several outside groups spending hundreds of thousands of dollars attempting to defeat Ms. Leavitt, who some Republicans fear might be a weaker opponent against Mr. Pappas.
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“Mowers probably has a slight advantage in running against Pappas, because he’s already done it,” said Thomas D. Rath, a former Recent Hampshire attorney general and longtime Republican strategist. “But she’s engaging due to her youth, her energy and her fierce competitiveness. The momentum is together with her.”
Even top House Republicans are torn over the race, signaling lingering divisions within the party that might shape the way it defines itself regardless of who wins. For Mr. McCarthy, who’s campaigning to be speaker, a victory by Mr. Mowers would add a reliable ally to his ranks. Ms. Leavitt could be a wild card more within the mold of Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and other hard-right lawmakers who’ve sometimes proved a thorn in Mr. McCarthy’s side.
A senior Republican strategist near Mr. McCarthy said Mr. Mowers was one in all several candidates who ran in 2020 whom the leader was supporting this election cycle, partially because he believed their name recognition and established networks of donors would position them for victories in the final election.
But Ms. Stefanik, who has styled herself in Mr. Trump’s image and has ambitions to rise within the party, is backing Ms. Leavitt, who previously worked as her communications director. She calls Ms. Leavitt “a rising star within the Republican Party who will carry the torch of conservative values for generations to return.”
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a brilliant PAC aligned with Mr. McCarthy, has spent greater than $1.3 million supporting Mr. Mowers. One other super PAC that supports moderate Republicans, Defending Important Street, has spent over $1.2 million and is running an ad that describes Ms. Leavitt as a “woke Gen-Z’er” and plays a Snapchat video she once posted where she uses crude language to check with her viewers.
E-Pac, Ms. Stefanik’s outside group that supports conservative female candidates, has maxed out to Ms. Leavitt’s campaign, and Ms. Stefanik has served as an off-the-cuff adviser to her former aide.
Ms. Leavitt has leaned into the attacks to color herself as a victim. “I’m officially the highest goal of DC’s money machine,” she posted on Twitter this week. “The Establishment knows I’m the best threat to their handpick puppet Matt Mowers.”
Ms. Leavitt’s backers view the cash elevating her opponent and the increasingly negative attacks against her as signs of fear from Mr. Mowers and Mr. McCarthy, who they are saying is attempting to put together a compliant conference and views Ms. Leavitt as a maverick who could be difficult to manage.
With a view to sell himself because the Trumpier candidate, Mr. Mowers has advertised his 2020 endorsement from the previous president on his campaign mailers, despite the fact that Mr. Trump has not made an endorsement in the present contest. (A top Trump aide said he was “still serious about the race.”)
Despite the heated attacks and the stylistic differences, operatives with each campaigns admit there may be little that distinguishes the candidates on policy. Of their ads introducing themselves to voters, Ms. Leavitt and Mr. Mowers each come across as deeply indignant concerning the state of the country under Mr. Biden’s leadership and pitch themselves as fighters who wish to secure the border and stand in the way in which of Mr. Biden’s agenda. Each oppose abortion rights on the federal level, saying the problem needs to be left to states.
Their rivalry has given Democrats renewed hope of holding the seat. Collin Gately, a spokesman for Mr. Pappas, said the competition had given Recent Hampshire voters “a front-row seat to the MAGA show” that has prompted each candidates to “run to the best.”
“Their eventual nominee is getting weaker by minute while we’re constructing a bipartisan coalition to win in November,” Mr. Gately said.