September 08. 2018 10:19PM

Election Guide to Republicans for 2nd CD: Candidates in crowded GOP field battle for attention, campaign cash

New Hampshire Union Leader

From left, Robert Burns, Lynne Blankenbeker, Gerard Beloin, Stewart Levenson, Rep. Steve Negron and Brian Belanger during the Granite State Debate Series Republican debate for the 2nd Congressional District at Saint Anselm College in Goffstown on Friday. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)

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The last time the 2nd Congressional District voted Republican for President, Ronald Reagan was retiring and Vice President George H. Bush was trying to succeed him in 1988.

Over the last 30 years, the only Republican to hold this seat was Peterborough patrician Charlie Bass, a pro-abortion rights businessman and ex-state senator who conservatives first labeled as a member of the liberal "Concord Gang."

But state GOP leaders still believe three-term U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster is vulnerable.

In 2016, the impressive showing of ex-State Rep. Jim Lawrence, of Hudson, getting more than 45 percent of the vote despite a child-support controversy swirling over him, only reinforced that point of view.

That's why the 2018 campaign has brought out an eclectic band of seven Republicans running to take Kuster down, with no clear front-runner or heir apparent among them.

One thing is sure: If one wins, they won't be a Bass clone, as all seven oppose abortion rights and toe the Trump talking points on the full range of other issues, from immigration, guns, trade, tax cuts and national security.

The best known three candidates all have close relationships with veterans and have made it a central theme of their candidacy.

Ex-State Rep. Lynne Blankenbeker, of Concord, was a Navy nurse for nearly 30 years who worked in combat zones, including in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan, where hospitals endured regular shelling.

State Rep. Steve Negron of Nashua is a career Air Force veteran who, after his retirement in 1988, went to work for several defense contracting agencies and ultimately set up his own defense supplier firm, Integron LLC.

Stewart Levenson of Hopkinton was medical director of the Manchester VA Medical Center and one of the central whistleblowers who went to Congress and the media with reports of "third-world" conditions.

Robert Burns of Manchester doesn't live in the district but said he spent most of his life there. As the head of his own pharmaceutical price consulting business, Burns won election as Hillsborough County treasurer over Chris Pappas, a Manchester Democrat now running in the 1st Congressional District.

Burns said protecting the rights of gun owners is a priority and said he stands out in the field as the earliest supporter of Donald Trump who, as he put it, turn out "the deplorables" that helped Trump nearly beat Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire on his way to the White House.

Brian Belanger launched his own excavation and septic service but was unable to work for the past three years after a car accident left him with permanent disabilities.

Problems with the federal Social Security system spurred him to run for Congress to help working people, Belanger said.

The seventh GOP candidate is Jay Mercer, a former director of health services at Rivier University who was trained as an advanced EMT. 

Candidates have struggled to break from this pack given their agreement on most issues and raising enough money to get their name out.

Negron and Levenson have both loaned their campaigns more than a quarter million dollars each to afford paid staffs and television advertising.

Meanwhile, Kuster is financially one of the most well-heeled Democratic incumbents in the country with more than $2.7 million in the bank as of the end of August.