Four Republicans, including two who ran for U.S. Congress in 2018, are competing in the Sept. 8 primary for the chance to represent New Hampshire’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes the entire Monadnock Region.
Steve Negron of Nashua, who won the Republican nomination for the seat two years ago, and Lynne Blankenbeker of Concord, who also ran in the last primary for the post, are joined by first-time congressional candidates Matthew Bjelobrk of Haverhill, and Eli Clemmer of Berlin. The victor will move on to the Nov. 3 general election and run against the winner of the Democratic primary, in which four-term incumbent Annie Kuster of Hopkinton faces a challenge from Keene resident Joseph Mirzoeff.
Andrew Olding of Nashua also has filed a declaration of intent to run in the general election as a third-party candidate.
Here’s a look at the Republicans running for the seat.
Matthew Bjelobrk (which, he said, rhymes with “yellow brick”) grew up on Long Island in New York, and spent his career as a police officer and in the military. The 53-year-old, who moved to New Hampshire in 2014, said he spent seven years in the New York City Police Department, and another 23 years in the Suffolk County Police Department in New York.
Before his law enforcement career, he spent about three years in the U.S. Marine Corps, and throughout his career, he served in the Army Reserves, and got called to active duty for four deployments to the Middle East. Bjelobrk said he was forced to retire in January 2019, after rising to the rank of colonel, due to injuries he suffered in combat. Since then, he has pursued his law degree at Vermont Law School, which he completed last weekend, he said. He also holds a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in New York.
Bjelobrk, who currently serves on the Haverhill Selectboard, said he’s running for Congress because he is unhappy with New Hampshire’s current federal representation.
“But more recently, I think we’re in a really turbulent time right now, and I think I see a lot of our leaders as weak and feckless,” he said. “I think it’s disgraceful that people in our country feel that they are not allowed to speak up if they have views that aren’t mainstream. To me, I feel dissent is patriotic.”
Some of Bjelobrk’s top priorities if elected include imposing term limits on federal legislators, eliminating pensions for politicians and taking money out of politics, including making campaigns publicly funded, he said.
“I think corporations are great things if you want to make money, but corporations are not great things if you allow them to have a political voice,” he said. “And I think the political voice rests with the people, the actual flesh-and-blood human being that has the vote. Corporations don’t have a vote, and yet we give them a vote when we have PAC money and we allow corporate donations to campaigns.”
Bjelobrk also said he wants to lower health care costs by decreasing governmental regulations and encouraging competition among insurance companies.
“I think you need to have the markets dictate what something should cost,” he said. “And I think competition will bring prices down and make things affordable.”
Ultimately, he said he believes he would provide a fresh voice for New Hampshire in Washington.
“We have a malaise in Congress. People are just happy to go along and get along, and it’s not helping the average American,” he said. “... I really believe in what I’m saying and what I want to do. So, I just hope people give me a shot, give me an honest and fair look. That’s all I ask.”
Lynne Blankenbeker, like Bjelobrk, has an extensive military background. The 56-year-old Florida native graduated in 1986 with a nursing degree from Troy State University in Alabama, and entered the U.S. Air Force through ROTC. She served as an Air Force nurse, including on active duty in the Middle East as part of Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield, until 2000, when she joined the U.S. Navy Reserves as a nurse.
Blankenbeker, who has been a New Hampshire resident since she moved to Lebanon in 1993, remains in the Navy Reserves, and paused her campaign between late March and June 1 to serve on the USNS Comfort, a Navy hospital ship that provided COVID-19 relief in New York City.
Blankenbeker moved to Concord in 2004 to pursue her law degree from what’s now called the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law. After earning her law degree in 2007, she won a seat in the N.H. House of Representatives in 2009, and again in 2010. She was unable to run for re-election in 2012 because she was called up to active duty in Afghanistan, but returned to politics in 2018, when she ran in the Republican primary for the same Congressional seat she is seeking now.
She earned 23 percent of the vote in that primary, falling short of Negron, who won the nomination with 27 percent. This time, though, Blankenbeker said her campaign is more focused on getting its message to voters, which is where she feels her last campaign fell short.
“I always run toward the fight, not away,” she said. “And so I feel like I’ve got the leadership that New Hampshire needs right now.”
Specifically, Blankenbeker said she will use her experience in the military, where she has worked with people of all backgrounds, to make Congress more productive and more representative of the country.
“[In the military,] if I don’t do my job well, and the guy next to me doesn’t do his or her job well, we’re not coming home alive, and America is worse off for it,” she said. “And so we’ve learned how to work together and put our differences aside. And if 2 million people in a uniform can do that, 435 people in Congress can do that.”
Drawing on her 34 years as a nurse, she also said she wants to lower health care costs and expand access by removing government restrictions. For example, Blankenbeker said, the federal government, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, loosened regulations around medical practitioners being required to be licensed in specific states, which allowed her to travel to New York and serve aboard the Comfort.
“That’s one of those examples of breaking down barriers, and with regulations that get in the way of getting quality care to people who need it today,” she said.
Blankenbeker also said national defense would be one of her top priorities in Congress, along with securing America’s borders, including constructing walls along the borders. She also said that, if she wins the primary, she is determined to improve upon the Republicans’ performance in 2018, when Negron earned about 42 percent of the vote to Kuster’s roughly 55 percent.
“We lost this race by nearly 14 points last time, and we just can’t have a repeat of that again,” she said. “I am committed to sending Ann Kuster home. And we saw what happened in 2018, and that didn’t work.”
Eli Clemmer, the only first-time politician in the race, is a 31-year-old Berlin resident who said he is running “a break-out, grassroots campaign” for Congress. Clemmer, who grew up in New Hampshire and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where his family served as medical missionaries, currently works as a library media specialist for Berlin Public Schools.
Clemmer holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of Maine, and another master’s degree from the University of South Carolina. He said he’s running for Congress because he believes more average Americans, and not politicians, should represent the country at the federal level.
“Since the beginning of the campaign, I’ve always been very focused on trying to restore our American politics to the everyday people, because I do believe we need to return to a citizens’ legislature, which is more what the founding fathers had in mind,” Clemmer said.
He also said he thinks Blankenbeker and Negron, who both ran two years ago, “were not really addressing the issues that most Republicans are concerned about in this day and age.” Specifically, Clemmer said he wants to speak up about cultural issues, like what he views as censorship of conservative ideas on college campuses and in mainstream media.
Clemmer said he has signed a term-limit pledge, which would restrict U.S. senators to two six-year terms, and U.S. representatives to three two-year terms.
“Working to increase fairness in our elections, working to increase to ensure that everyday Americans have the opportunity to be involved in politics at the local level as well as the federal level, that’s a big passion of mine,” he said.
Coming from an educational background, Clemmer said he believes in more local control, and less federal oversight, of American public schools.
“I’m also very much in favor of healthy competition, and the free market ideals,” he said. “By allowing individual states more control over how to run their own systems, such as health care and education, it does allow us to have this competitive field of seeing different approaches, and seeing what works and what does not work.”
As Clemmer runs for office, he also draws on his upbringing in Africa, which he said opened his eyes to the inequality that exists around the world, and the freedoms and benefits that Americans enjoy.
“I really want to ensure that we do protect the freedoms we have in America, and I want to ensure that we don’t see it degrade and fall apart,” he said. “And I’m very concerned with the level of corruption we’ve seen in our local governments, state government, as well as the federal government, especially the federal government.”
And that, Clemmer said, is why he wants to represent N.H.’s 2nd Congressional District as part of “a return to a citizens’ legislature.”
Steve Negron, 59, is an Air Force veteran who has lived in Nashua since 1989. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Texas Christian University and a master’s degree from Western New England University in Springfield, Mass. After retiring from the Air Force, Negron has spent his career in the defense industry, working for large defense contractors including General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin before founding his own company, Integron LLC, in 2005.
Since then, Negron has remained the president and CEO of the company, which currently employs 16 people and focuses on defense engineering and consulting. Negron entered politics in 2016, when he won a seat in the N.H. House of Representatives. He did not seek re-election, and instead ran for U.S. Congress, winning the primary election two years ago before falling short to Kuster in the 2018 general election. After that, Negron said he heard from many people who encouraged him to run again, adding that his experience in the last campaign has left him better prepared this time around.
“I’m the only one who went up against Ann Kuster, so we evaluated what we did wrong, what we did well, and so I’m better prepared to go up against Ann Kuster this time because I have already been once in the ring with her,” Negron said.
As a small business owner, Negron said that, if he is elected to Congress, he would be especially focused on legislation designed to help businesses recover from the financial blow dealt by the COVID-19 pandemic. But, he added, he would do so with a fiscally conservative approach.
“I’m not a spending kind of guy, so I would make sure that whatever these relief packages that we put out have one very simple litmus test: Is this providing help to somebody affected by COVID-19? If the answer is no, then it comes out of the package,” Negron said.
Similarly, he said he would seek to rein in the national debt if he wins a seat in Congress. He also said he would prioritize lowering health care costs, and expanding access to health insurance by eliminating government restrictions.
“We go across state lines to buy every other type of insurance, whether it’s homeowner’s insurance or boat insurance or auto insurance. We don’t have that same kind of ability in the health care market, and I don’t understand why that is,” Negron said. “I believe that competition is good, and I think that we have to be able to lower the barriers to entry to allow more providers to come into our state.”
Negron also said his military experience and career in the defense industry give him a deep knowledge that would make him an effective Congressman. But first, Negron added, he has to get through the primary campaign.
“Our ultimate focus is to win the election on Nov. 3,” he said, “but to get there we have to get through Sept. 8.”