Why you should care
Because she may be the key to winning New Hampshire and, maybe, the presidency.
As Elizabeth Warren prepared for perhaps the most important speech in her nascent presidential campaign, it was no accident that U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster of New Hampshire was at her side. Backstage, Kuster gave the candidate one final thought: “If you win this room, you go on to win it all.”
Kuster was nodding to the 1,000 rowdy Democrat lawmakers, activists and power players gathered at the McIntyre-Shaheen 100 Club Dinner, who had just raised nearly half a million dollars in donations on that late-February night alone. But in her advice to Warren, Kuster may as well have been referring to herself. In this all-too-important first primary in the nation — nobody in modern politics has won a major party nomination without placing first or second in the Granite State — there is no lawmaker better poised to play kingmaker than Kuster. “She will be one of the most desired endorsements you can get,” says former Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand, a Democratic candidate for governor in 2018. “This is her moment,” agrees former New Hampshire Attorney General Tom Rath, a Republican.
That is both a reflection of Kuster’s lofty status and electoral circumstance. Fresh off winning a fourth term in November, the 62-year-old has built a statewide network of grass-roots activists and loyal volunteers. “Her name ID is high among Democratic activists and … she has great staffers and alums. The volunteers would weigh her opinion heavily,” Marchand says. Plus, timing has elevated Kuster: The governor is a Republican, the state’s other U.S. representative is a newly elected freshman and neither of New Hampshire’s two U.S. senators seem likely to ruffle feathers among their six White House–seeking Senate colleagues with an endorsement.
Kuster has every intention to endorse, even if she is helping everyone “get their bearings” so far.
That makes Kuster the most powerful Democratic free agent in the state — a role she clearly relishes as the daughter of a Concord mayor father and state senator mother famous for her kumbaya cross-party dinners near the Capitol. After earning an environmental policy degree from Dartmouth and a law degree from Georgetown, Kuster worked on education and nonprofit law at Rath’s firm. “She is a happy warrior. She doesn’t divide, she seeks to unite,” Rath says. As an attorney, she helped facilitate hundreds of adoptions. From 1989 to 2009, she worked as a lobbyist for clients such as NARAL Pro-Choice New Hampshire and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
Sitting in a coffee shop in downtown Concord, Kuster is all accommodating charm and wit, smiling from behind rimless glasses and wrapped in a blue blazer bearing her congressional pin. Her big viral moment came while making a “raising the roof” gesture at the State of the Union address in February.
That warmth translates in person, where she jokes about nagging her two kids for grandchildren and says her goal in the primary is to “make people feel kindly welcome,” quoting an old Canterbury Shaker saying about hospitality. Cute adage aside, there will be a time where civilities will end — because Kuster has every intention to endorse, even if she is helping everyone “get their bearings” so far. She compliments New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker (whose approach she describes as “spiritual more than political”) and says he and California Sen. Kamala Harris share a similar unifying message.
That’s similar to her impressions of Barack Obama in December 2006, when Kuster was so struck by meeting him that she signed on to his campaign despite her family and friends backing Hillary Clinton for president. “He was very comfortable in his own skin. He knew his personal story, and he could speak for me,” she says, while Clinton felt like “the status quo.” Kuster’s early gamble paid off: Although Clinton won the New Hampshire primary by 8,000 votes, Obama kept it so close that both candidates received nine delegates, a strategic win Kuster helped achieve as part of his steering committee. She has a knack for picking Democratic nominees: She also hosted one of the first house parties for John Kerry in August 2003, back when many of her friends supported Howard Dean.
After helping Obama, Kuster decided to run for Congress herself. She lost a close race to Republican Charles Bass in 2010, then beat him two years later. Since then, she has tried to pass legislation as a moderate. “There is nobody more progressive on reproductive rights, equality for LGBT people, those types of issues. Where I am that might be different is I’m very oriented toward jobs and the economy,” she says, before adding definitively: “I’m not a Democratic socialist.”
As the pharmaceutical industry has come under greater scrutiny, Kuster has faced some too, though she insists she never lobbied for opioids. Her NH Medication Bridge public-private partnership helped give free prescriptions to patients in need, she says. “Medication is not evil,” she adds, pointing out her work on the HPV vaccine.
“Strangely, it hasn’t been an issue” in her campaigns, admits St. Anselm College Institute of Politics Chief of Staff Neil Levesque, a longtime Bass staffer. Instead, Levesque says the biggest challenge for Kuster may be in passing legislation as a small-state representative in a divided Congress. She was the 25th most conservative House Democrat, with the 11th best record of passing bills out of committee last session, according to a GovTrack analysis, but only introduced the 95th most bills, including one signed into law requiring the Department of Veterans Affairs to keep better track of prescription drugs. Kuster isn’t interested in passing House bills that have no chance in the Republican Senate, instead opting for bills “that can make some change,” she says.
Back in her state, Kuster started touring with 2020 presidential hopefuls in October, including fellow Reps. Tim Ryan and Eric Swalwell, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Booker, Harris and Warren — whom Kuster praised for expanding the list of “big, new ideas” with her universal childcare proposal. She seems less enthused about 2016 New Hampshire primary victor Bernie Sanders (Kuster backed Clinton last time around). Both Rath and Marchand separately used the word “pragmatic” to describe Kuster. That could well lead her more toward a candidate such as Joe Biden, Beto O’Rourke or Amy Klobuchar, who tried to meet with Kuster on a recent Monday. But Kuster had to decline, promising to reschedule, too tired from a weekend of shuttling around other candidates.
Kuster’s endorsement, like the vote of so many Donald Trump–weary Democrats, will likely come down to whom she perceives as most electable. Almost giddily, she proclaims: “I want to win this thing.”
OZY’s 5 Questions with Annie Kuster
- What’s the last book you read? One I just finished is Educated. It’s about a young Mormon woman from Idaho. Her family are preppers for the end of the world, and she doesn’t ever go to school. Seventeen years old is the first time she walks into a classroom, but she manages to take the ACT and get into college at BYU. The other is Good and Mad, about women over the course of history, women getting the vote, suffragists, the different waves of women rising up.
- What do you worry about? Donald Trump, and the damage and destruction he is doing to our country that I believe could be long-lasting.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? My phone. My eyeglasses as well.
- Who’s your hero? My mom, Susan McClain. She overcame adversity. Left college after one year, got married, had five children in eight years, two broken legs from ski racing in the middle of all that and ended up going on to serve for 25 years in the New Hampshire Legislature.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? Well, we can check off Saturday Night Live. That was crazy. What else is on my bucket list? My kids would kill me if I said grandchildren.
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