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Ayotte Wins New Hampshire GOP Senate Primary

4 years ago
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In one of the country's tightest and most-anticipated Republican Senate primaries, New Hampshire former attorney general Kelly Ayotte beat conservative lawyer Ovide Lamontagne by just 1,600 votes. With 90 percent of the vote counted Wednesday afternoon, the New York Times had Ayotte in the lead over Lamontagne by a mere one percentage point.

Both Republican candidates had received high-profile endorsements from conservative leaders: Lamontagne, considered the Tea Party favorite, received (via Twitter) the endorsement of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), as well as Tea Party leader and Colorado Senate candidate Ken Buck, who headlined a fundraiser for Lamontagne.

Ayotte had initially been viewed as the more moderate of the two candidates, but had lately succeeded in making the case for her conservative bona fides. In doing do, she won the support of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin -- who dubbed Ayotte a "Granite Grizzly" and made robocalls for her in the weeks leading up to the primary.

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Despite the involvement of Tea Party leaders, New Hampshire political analysts cautioned against interpreting any Ayotte's win as a referendum on the movement's power inside the state. "Palin muddied the waters," said James Pindell, political director for New Hampshire television station WMUR, arguing that the tight race had little to do with Tea Party insurgents battling establishment candidates. "Kelly Ayotte never made herself a target [for the Tea Party] -- she's no Mike Castle," said Pindell, referring to the long-serving Delaware Republican senator who lost in a surprise upset to Tea Party insurgent Christine O'Donnell.

Andrew Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, concurred. "The endorsement from Palin changed the media cycle about Ayotte -- but I don't think it [had] an impact at the polls," he said. "As far as [Jim] DeMint and [Ken] Buck, I think a lot of voters have no idea who they are." Smith made the argument that the Tea Party movement is made up of traditional social conservatives, and "New Hampshire doesn't have that many social conservatives up here. These are Rockefeller Republicans, pro-choice Republicans." Pindell pointed to the low voter turnout on Tuesday, saying, "It's highly speculative to say we know who these people are."

In terms of policy, Ayotte and Lamontagne shared views on social issues and the economy, favoring the elimination of earmarks, a repeal of health care reform, and an end to stimulus spending. Both candidates swept past candidate Bill Binnie, who finished third in the race with was widely acknowledged to be the most moderate of the three Republican candidates. Yet Binnie far outpaced either candidate in terms of cash: Binnie spent an estimated $6 million on his campaign, while Ayotte spent $3 million and Lamontagne a mere $500,000.

As winner of the Republican primary, Ayotte will go on to battle Democratic Congressman Paul Hodes in the general election. Public Policy Polling data earlier this month showed both Ayotte and Lamontagne beating Hodes by roughly the same margin.

In the Republican House races, former Manchester mayor Frank Guinta beat defense industry executive Rich Ashooh and businessman Sean Mahoney to win the GOP seat for New Hampshire's 1st Congressional District. With 86 percent of precincts reporting, Giunta had received 32 percent of the vote, while Ashooh and Mahoney each had 28 percent, respectively. Giunta will now face sophomore incumbent Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter in November. Guinta was the initial favorite, though Ashooh won the endorsement of the state's conservative Union Leader newspaper, while Mahoney was a late-breaking front runner. He pumped over $900,000 of his own money into the race and rallied strong support late in the primary season.

In the state's 2nd Congressional District, Republican Charlie Bass -- who held the seat until 2006, when he lost to Democrat Paul Hodes -- was the winner of his party's nomination and will face Democrat Anne McLane Kuster in the general election. With 85 percent of precincts reporting, Bass had 43 percent of the vote, leading challengers Jennifer Horn, who had 35 percent of the vote, and Bob Guida, with 17 percent. Once considered a moderate Republican who voted in support of cap and trade legislation and is pro-choice, Bass has since moved right, though he is considered more moderate than Horn -- a former radio talk show host and Tea Party favorite. In 2008, Horn ran for the seat (and lost) to Hodes.

Kuster, a strongly left-wing Democrat, swept past centrist Katrina Swett -- a human rights lawyer and daughter of former congressman Tom Lantos and wife of former congressman Richard Swett -- to win her party's nomination to compete for Hodes' former seat in the 2nd District. With nearly 85 percent of districts reporting, Swett had received only 29 percent of the vote, while Kuster had a sizable lead with 71 percent.

Kuster, also an attorney, appealed to New Hampshire's core Democratic base: she supports health care reform, comprehensive immigration reform and has called for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. In recent weeks, Kuster faced blowback from revelations about her work as a registered lobbyist serving clients including pharmaceutical companies -- something her opponent is likely to seize upon in the general election.

Should Swett have won the nomination, it would have marked the third time the Swett family had faced Republican Charlie Bass in the race for the 2nd CD seat. In 1994, Bass beat then-incumbent Richard Swett; in 2002, Bass trounced Katrina Swett for the seat by a 57-41 percent margin. For those looking for a third Bass-Swett rematch, the showdown doesn't appear to be in the cards.

The results in New Hampshire -- namely, whether Democrats can pick up a seat in the Senate or hold onto the ones they have in the House -- is likely to have an effect on the national stage. As for the prospects going forward in the 2nd CD race, GOP leaders have expressed confidence in Bass' chances to take Hodes' old seat, though they reserve particular optimism for their prospects in the state's 1st CD race, where they have said the probability of a victory over Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter is "very good."

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