In most of the major competitive Republican primaries this year, three interrelated factors—money, ideology, and influential backers—have been on display in eyecatching ways. The political furies of 2010 have lured an unprecedented number of self-funding neophytes onto the ballot; Meg Whitman, Rick Scott, and Linda McMahon being just the most profligate examples. It’s the rare Republican primary where most, if not all candidates decline to call themselves “true conservatives” and impugn the ideological purity of their opponents. And it’s been a banner year for endorsements and counter-endorsements, with numerous candidates benefitting (and in some cases suffering) from identification with the national GOP, national or local Tea Party Groups, Sarah Palin, Jim Demint, and other richly symbolic figures.
All these factors are at work in New Hampshire, whose Republican U.S. Senate primary on September 14 is the marquee contest in that state. The prize is the nomination to succeed retiring Republican Senator Judd Gregg. The race has drawn national attention because—well—it’s New Hampshire, whose citizenry plays such an outsized role in the selection of our presidents, and also because this is one of the open Republican Senate seats that Democrats hope to win in order to counteract the slaughter of their incumbents elsewhere.
Early on in this race, the gods of the Washington Republican Establishment settled on Attorney General Kelly Ayotte as their New Hampshire candidate. She was presentable, had no voting record to exploit, and seemed appealing to independents; yet she was also entirely acceptable to “movement conservatives,” particularly New Hampshire’s very influential anti-abortion lobby. Best of all, polls showed her running comfortably ahead of the putative Democratic candidate, Congressman Paul Hodes. When Ayotte obtained the coveted Mama Grizzly endorsement from Sarah Palin in mid-July, most outside observers figured she’d locked it all up, despite annoying attack ads run by a very free-spending businessman, Bill Binnie, whom Palin went out of her way to slur as a RINO.
But it turned out the fun was just beginning. Binnie has tossed well over $5 million of his own money into the race, allowing him the important luxury of heavy advertising on expensive Boston media, and drawing blood from Ayotte by accusing her of unwillingness to go after illegal immigrants, along with negligence in monitoring a notorious Ponzi scheme that had been in the news for months. Ayotte responded in kind, and the two have engaged in a slugfest, wherein each constantly accuses the other of being “liberal.” In this classic murder-suicide dynamic, both candidates’ negatives have risen, creating an opening for the two other major candidates, fiery “true conservative” veteran Ovide Lamontagne, a past gubernatorial nominee, and another self-funding businessman, Jim Bender.
At the end of August, an endorsement far more powerful than Sarah Palin’s occurred, when the infamous 900-pound troglodyte of Granite State politics, the New Hampshire (formerly Manchester) Union-Leader, came out for Lamontagne, providing invaluable free media coverage and a barrage of criticism aimed at Binnie and Ayotte. The latter has been under constant attack by Lamontagne and the Union-Leader for appearing to support Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court nomination, and for agreeing to pay out $300,000 in state funds to Planned Parenthood as part of a court-ordered settlement of a suit against a state parental-notification law.
The one recent poll of the contest, a September 1 survey by Magellan Strategies, showed Ayotte at 37 percent, Lamontagne at 21 percent, Binnie at 17 percent (with a 54 percent unfavorable rating), and Bender at 13 percent. Lamontagne has since hit the airwaves for the first time, calling himself the “only conservative” in the race, and Binnie’s apparently decided to go all in for an appeal to independents and the ever-shrinking ranks of Republican moderates by trumpeting his pro-choice views.
Going into the last few days of the primary campaign, Ayotte is still the favorite, but if Lamontagne catches her by Tuesday, it will be one of the more improbable upsets of the year, and a distressing one for national Republicans—who are well aware that he’s the one candidate running behind Paul Hodes in published polls. The possibility that rich “RINO” Bill Binnie’s many attacks on Ayotte could indirectly nominate Lamontagne goes to show that, even amid all the cacophony this Republican primary season, money can still speak the loudest.