DSCC - The Hill: Republicans in NH scoff at D.C.'s role in Senate race

“It’s a mistake for her to be holding events with lobbyists in Washington, presumably offering them assurances that she hasn’t offered people in New Hampshire,” said one veteran Republican consultant who has not picked a favorite candidate.



Republicans in New Hampshire scoff at D.C.’s role in Senate race



By Reid Wilson

Posted: 08/03/09 05:30 PM [ET]


Former New Hampshire Attorney General Kelly Ayotte (R) has given the GOP a top-tier candidate in an open Senate seat, but the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s (NRSC) quick embrace has angered some in the Granite State.

And that’s left a number of conservatives to rally to Ovide Lamontagne, a former state Board of Education chairman who won the 1996 gubernatorial primary.

In July, Ayotte resigned her office to begin exploring a run for retiring Sen. Judd Gregg’s (R-N.H.) seat. Even though the NRSC has not formally endorsed her, the committee will host a fundraiser for her Sept. 22 at its D.C. headquarters. Both Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and NRSC Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) are listed as special guests on the invitation.


Word of the Washington fundraiser led to an angry op-ed in Monday’s Manchester, N.H., Union Leader, a conservative-leaning paper that will play a role in the Republican primary. Political observers said the paper has been a fan of Lamontagne’s in the past.

The Union Leader’s outrage may be the tip of a Republican iceberg. In hand-picking a candidate, the NRSC runs the risk of insulting a highly passionate, highly engaged set of New Hampshire Republicans.

The home of the first-in-the-nation presidential primary, the Granite State’s voters are fiercely protective of their image as seasoned political observers, and some who are remaining neutral in the race say the national GOP’s involvement could have an impact that Ayotte doesn’t expect.

“Washington, D.C., told us that we had to vote for Bob Dole, and New Hampshire Republicans voted for Pat Buchanan. They told us we had to vote for George W. Bush; we voted for John McCain. They told us to vote for Mitt Romney; we voted for John McCain,” said Patrick Hynes, a Republican consultant and Granite State veteran. “New Hampshire Republicans have a reflexive desire to be left alone.”

Ayotte’s campaign does not see her as a Washington candidate, and they say her early focus on calling Republican activists around the state will pay off.

“Taking a person who has never run for political office and trying to turn her into a Washington candidate is a huge mistake,” said Brooks Kochvar, Ayotte’s campaign manager. “She is a through-and-through New Hampshire candidate.”

Some neutral Republicans say they do not see Ayotte’s slow start as a problem, given that New Hampshire is consumed by races for mayor of Manchester and other municipal elections.

“There haven’t been a lot of forums to see. Right now, it’s about getting out there and meeting folks and maybe giving a couple of speeches,” Republican strategist Mark Sanborn told The Hill. “I haven’t heard anything from the other folks running for Senate either.”

Former Gov. John H. Sununu, a legend in Republican Party politics and the current state party chairman, is likely to play an outsize role in the primary, even though he has pledged neutrality. That pledge, which activists on both sides have said he is sticking to, is a message in itself.

“I hope the NRSC understands that New Hampshire doesn’t really respond well to having candidates designated from outside the state, and I don’t think it would be in Kelly Ayotte’s best interest to have something like that happen,” Sununu told The Hill.

“I’m just going to make sure it’s a positive Republican primary with all the candidates focused on the shortcomings of the Democrats,” Sununu said.

But before the race gets to a point at which the GOP nominee can focus solely on the likely Democratic candidate, Rep. Paul Hodes, Ayotte — the early front-runner — has questions to answer.

Conservatives worry that Ayotte has not enumerated her positions on a number of issues important to them, including abortion and same-sex marriage. While the New Hampshire Republican Party is not the most right-leaning in the country, those issues will matter in a primary.

And many detractors wonder just where the former attorney general has been since leaving office. Ayotte has not held any public events yet, and news that she would benefit from a Washington fundraiser emerging before any New Hampshire stops were confirmed did not go over well.

“It’s a mistake for her to be holding events with lobbyists in Washington, presumably offering them assurances that she hasn’t offered people in New Hampshire,” said one veteran Republican consultant who has not picked a favorite candidate.

Ayotte is set to embark on a tour throughout the state over the next month and a half, beginning next Tuesday at a summer social hosted by the Winnipesaukee GOP. She will attend GOP events in Strafford County, Manchester, Rockingham, Salem, Milford, Nashua and Bedford in coming weeks.

And even though she may take heat for holding a fundraiser in Washington, some neutral observers say now is the time to scoop up campaign cash.

“If there was a time to do some of this D.C. stuff, she’s chosen wisely,” Sanborn said.

The race will not consist entirely of conservatives making up their mind about Ayotte. Though Lamontagne has not run for office in 13 years, he has a well of good will among conservative activists, and when he did run in 1996 he upset the prohibitive front-runner in the Republican primary.

Private, third-party polling has shown Lamontagne has surprisingly high name identification — north of 50 percent — though few people say they have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of him. That indicates people recognize his name, though both his supporters and detractors have room to influence how the public sees him.

Ayotte starts with a big advantage financially. She is expected to significantly outraise any other Republican challenger, a key factor in a state that includes the pricey Boston media market.

“She will have the resources she needs,” Kochvar said.