At 25, Leavitt defied expectations by winning the first hurdle in her maiden campaign, topping a more moderate Republican in the primary to represent her hometown in New Hampshire’s 1st Congressional District. Her open embrace of Trump led the top two House Republican leaders to endorse her opponent in the hopes that a more pragmatic candidate could win the general-election race.
Leavitt is now hoping to again challenge the norm, this time on Capitol Hill. If she wins, she will become the youngest woman ever elected to Congress and one of the first members from Generation Z.
First, she must oust Rep. Chris Pappas, 42, a Democrat seeking his third term. In this swing district, Pappas is considered vulnerable, with history showing that the sitting president’s party tends to lose House seats in midterm elections. If Pappas wins reelection, he would be the first politician to win three consecutive terms representing the 1st District since Republican John E. Sununu’s streak two decades ago.
Both candidates are trying to animate their base — and fight for a winning share of independent voters — by presenting opposing viewpoints on myriad issues, including inflation, crime and abortion. While both candidates are speaking about the same issues, albeit in vastly different ways, the race in turn has drawn focus on the question of experience. Several voters who spoke to The Washington Post questioned whether experience is a necessity when high prices continue to affect their fiscal decision-making.
Independent voters such as Debbie Lambert, who is in her 60s, said that age shouldn’t be a factor but that it’s a consideration she can’t ignore. Though she was leaning toward voting for Pappas — she said Leavitt’s position on abortion “scares” her — she was still giving Leavitt a look last month at a Manchester grocery store, hoping to hear more about her positions on Social Security as she prepares to retire.
“I guess it shouldn’t matter, but it does a little bit,” Lambert said of the experience factor. “That’s why I want to hear what she has to say.”
Donna Zannoni, 74 and also an independent, is siding with Leavitt. She wants to retire but says she can’t afford with prices so high. After attending a Leavitt event at Estey’s Country Store in her hometown of Londonderry, Zannoni described Leavitt as “feisty.” She said that is exactly the characteristic a new member of Congress should have to “fight all the harder” against what she sees as the GOP leadership’s more moderate stances.
“If it was me, get rid of all the old people,” Zannoni said. “You need young blood in there.”
A Gen Z conservative rarely fits in
Leavitt said she decided to run for Congress when she saw President Biden and congressional Democrats undoing Trump administration policies. Leavitt also said there were no conservative voices from her generation with nuanced perspectives that she could really look up to.
“I wanted to be part of that change and part of the movement that brings young Americans onto our team, because the reality is the liberal Democrat policies of this administration and Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi and my Democrat opponent are making life completely unaffordable for Generation Z Americans,” she said in an interview at the Londonderry event. “My goal, as a Generation Z conservative, is to speak that truth and bring people to our side of the aisle.”
Leavitt was born and raised in Rockingham County, N.H., working at her family’s ice cream shop in Atkinson during the summer. She attended Catholic high school in nearby Massachusetts, where, she told the podcast “The Catholic Current” last year, her commitment to her religious teachings and public service was fostered.
She attended Saint Anselm College on a softball scholarship and had her sights set on fulfilling her childhood dream of becoming a broadcast reporter. Leavitt became disillusioned by the job, she has said, as she watched “the liberal media” attack Trump. Upon graduation in 2019, Leavitt interned at the White House and worked her way up to the job of assistant press secretary, fighting “against the biased mainstream media,” her campaign website says.
After the 2020 election, Leavitt relocated down Pennsylvania Avenue to work as communications director for Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), helping Stefanik as she campaigned to replace Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) as GOP conference chair.
As the 2022 elections approached, it was no secret on Capitol Hill that Leavitt, then 23, had higher ambitions and was exploring a run for Congress. Leavitt was encouraged by Stefanik, who as chair has worked to recruit more women to the male-dominated GOP conference. Stefanik was once the youngest woman elected to the House, at age 3o in 2015, before New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her House race in 2018 at 29.
Launching her campaign in July 2021, Leavitt was not considered a serious contender by others in the party. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) viewed her positions, including pushing the falsehood that Biden was an illegitimately elected president, as too extreme compared with fellow Trump administration official Matt Mowers, who lost to Pappas in 2020 by five percentage points. Both endorsed Mowers in the primary, and the Congressional Leadership Fund, a political action committee linked to McCarthy and focused on backing more-electable candidates, spent $1.3 million to boost him.
The efforts were not enough. GOP voters favored Leavitt over Mowers by over 10 percentage points in the September primary. According to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan group tracking money in politics, PACs aligned with McCarthy and Scalise have since donated thousands to her campaign, while the Congressional Leadership Fund and the National Republican Congressional Committee have invested millions in ads to defeat Pappas. Leavitt’s campaign brought in $900,000 from largely small-dollar donors in the state in the weeks after her win, according to her campaign.
But Leavitt faces an uphill battle to convince undecided voters in a state that Trump lost twice that she is her own individual. In the first debate this cycle, Leavitt skirted around a question about whether she supports Trump’s suggestion that he would pardon rioters who overtook the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. “That’s a hypothetical question,” she responded. “And President Trump is not on the ballot this election cycle.”
Leavitt has since softened her views on key issues, including the 2020 election results. Earlier this year she tweeted that “Joe Biden absolutely did NOT legitimately win.” But in a recent interview she said Biden was the “legitimate” president. When pressed on whether she would have voted to certify the election had she been in office on Jan. 6, 2021, Leavitt said “probably not” after reiterating her belief that “fraud and irregularities” occurred.
After embracing Trump’s Make America Great Again movement in the primary, she removed such references on her social media pages as she entered the general election. Someone visiting her social media pages or website late last month might not know that Trump endorsed her.
Asked whether her MAGA background is too strong for a swing district, Leavitt said that her fiscally conservative approach meets the moment and that Republican and independent voters are looking to the GOP to deal with the economy and high gas prices. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the race a toss-up.
“New Hampshire is the ‘Live Free or Die’ state,” she said. “So we have a freedom-loving mentality here that I think exceeds across the political spectrum. Republicans, Democrats, independents — we value our freedom.”
“It’s my job to reverse the tide and ensure our ‘Live Free or Die’ values are being brought and met in Washington,” Leavitt said.
Economy remains front and center
Standing before dozens of people outside Estey’s Country Store, Leavitt accused Pappas of voting for spending bills that are contributing to inflation and “crushing” small businesses. She said working-class families will have to choose “between heating and eating this winter” because Democrats have yet to prioritize fracking and oil drilling.
To combat rising prices, Leavitt proposed cutting funding for 87,000 new IRS agents. (Democrats recently boosted funding to the IRS in the Inflation Reduction Act so they could replace staffers expected to retire over the next decade, but it does not call explicitly for hiring 87,000 agents.) Republicans have called the hires an example of Democratic federal overreach, and Leavitt made the unsupported claim that the hires would help the IRS “snoop into the bank accounts of small businesses.”
During her first debate with Pappas, Leavitt suggested reevaluating how much funding is going to Ukrainians fighting a Russian invasion. “Mr. Pappas supports dealing more of your tax dollars to send to the country of Ukraine when we are facing 8.2 percent inflation,” she said.
Pappas attacked Leavitt’s stance on Social Security, citing statements she made earlier this year about being open to raising the retirement age and privatizing the program. Pappas’s campaign, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the House Majority PAC have invested roughly $8.3 million in attack ads, with some featuring the interview remarks.
In response, Leavitt said she “will always protect Social Security” but is against “trillions and trillions of new spending that is adding to inflation and is bankrupting your generation, my generation,” arguing that taxes will need to go up if the program is not overhauled in some way.
Her lack of specificity on some policy issues is something Pappas is using to draw contrasts around their political experience. In an interview, Pappas said his record proves he has worked across the aisle to pass consequential measures, such as the infrastructure bill.
“We strengthen our democracy by coming together and finding solutions to rising prices. We strengthen our democracy when we protect people’s personal freedoms and ensure that people have the right to make their own health-care decisions,” he said. “I think my opponent is more driven by the national media attention and desire to attack Democrats. That’s not going to help solve problems.”
Some people close to Leavitt say it is unfair to point at her lack of specificity when discussing policies as a sign that she is unprepared for the job, noting many Republicans, including incumbents, have not proposed specific policy prescriptions before a potential GOP majority debates what bills to pass.
But it has struck some voters as evidence of inexperience. Mike Bouchard, 64, a Democrat who said he is not enthused by Pappas, said he will stick with the congressman because Leavitt is “very, very young. That’s a big job for a 25-year-old kid.”
But Republican Steve Vargus, 41, said the way Leavitt comports herself and the conviction she displays is what first caught his attention when he saw her do a Fox News interview this year. He said he thinks Leavitt will not only bring that same passionate appeal to Congress but also use it to hold leaders in the GOP conference to account.
“We just need change,” Vargus said. “People have just been in there for too long. They get too comfortable for being in there for too long. That’s why we need young blood like Karoline in there.”
His young daughter, Layla, went up to Leavitt during the Londonderry event to ask her whether she ever thought she would get this far in the race.
“I did. I believed in myself. But it’s hard sometimes,” Leavitt told the third-grader. “There are a lot of challenges, a lot of mean things people say. But if you believe in yourself and you just focus, then it doesn’t matter what people say.”