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Capital Beat

Capital Beat: Republicans, Democrats mark battleground in race to control state Senate

Political junkies have surely noticed the uptick in campaign activity between Democrats Kass Ardinger and Dan Feltes, who are competing to secure endorsements in a battle to replace Concord’s outgoing state senator, Sylvia Larsen.

It’s the first seriously competitive state Senate race Concord has seen in 20 years, but when it comes down to the fight for control of the state Senate, it’s one that hardly matters. The Democratic primary winner is almost guaranteed to win the general election, doing nothing to shift the balance of the Republican-controlled Senate. Instead, the races to watch are playing out in Manchester, Hollis, New London and a host of other districts across the state.

Right now, Republicans hold 13 seats and Democrats 11, meaning just a few races could swing the chamber. In June, nearly three months before the election, the committees dedicated to supporting Senate candidates for both parties reported record fundraising totals. And even though it’s the dog days of summer, when people care more about their summer vacations than politics (much more), candidates on both sides have started putting in the work early, knocking on doors and raising money to build a strong organization for the fall. That’s especially true for candidates (mostly Republicans) facing primaries on Sept. 9.

Republican targets

For Republicans, Democratic Sens. Peggy Gilmour of Hollis, Donna Soucy of Manchester and Andrew Hosmer of Laconia are top targets, party chairwoman Jennifer Horn said.

Gilmour, a two-term senator, was first elected to the Senate in 2008. She lost her seat in 2010 then gained it back in 2012, each time by roughly 1,000 votes. Percentage wise, she even outperformed Hassan in 2012, and her fundraising numbers this year show she’s ready for a fight; as of mid-June, she’d raised $83,000. She’ll face either Kevin Avard or Michael McCarthy, both Republicans from Nashua.

Soucy, a first-term senator from Manchester, won 51 percent of the votes in her district last cycle. Manchester school board member Robyn Dunphy and state Rep. George Lambert, who leans libertarian, are up for that seat. Soucy is the only Democratic senator who voted against raising the gas tax this year.

Hosmer sailed into his first term in office, beating Republican Josh Youseff by 5,000 votes in 2012. He far outperformed Hassan, who earned 54 percent of the vote. Youseff’s campaign was clouded by accusations of fraud and revelations about a lengthy custody battle with his ex-wife. Former state representative Kathleen Lauer-Rago will be Hosmer’s Republican opponent this time around.

“Those are three seats right there that in our opinion are viable gets for us,” Horn said.

Democratic targets

Democrats, meanwhile, could put up a good fight against Sens. Sam Cataldo of Farmington, Nancy Stiles of Hampton and Andy Sanborn of Bedford. Also up for grabs is the District 8 seat being vacated by longtime Sen. Bob Odell of New London.

Odell handily won that district in 2012, but so did Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan and President Obama. The Republicans also have a two-way primary for that seat, meaning whoever the nominee is could emerge weakened, leaving an opening for state Rep. Linda Tanner, a longtime teacher from Georges Mills, to win the seat.

District 9 will see a rematch between Sanborn and Lee Nyquist, the Democrat who ran in 2012 and lost to Sanborn by only about 200 votes.

Stiles also faces a primary, from businessman Steve Kenda, which could be a blessing for Democratic state Rep. Chris Muns. As of mid-June, Muns had raised $65,000. Cataldo does not have a primary but won his district by just 600 votes in 2012.

Candidate fundraising reports are not due until Aug. 20, but many of the Democratic candidates filed early reports in June.

One seat that looks like a missed opportunity for Democrats is in District 16, the seat currently held by Republican Sen. David Boutin. Boutin won his seat by less than 400 votes two years ago and is facing a primary challenge from the right. State Rep. Jane Cormier will attack him on his support for Medicaid expansion and his vote to raise the gas tax. This is a primary that could get ugly, yet Democrats weren’t able to find anyone to run for the seat. Hassan won the district by 3 percentage points in 2012.

Get out the vote efforts

Turnout in this year’s election is also likely to be far less than that in 2012, as always happens with a midterm compared to a presidential election.

As early as May, the Democratic Party was organizing volunteers, holding 12 summits across the state. Granite State Forward, the name of the Democrats coordinated campaign for the fall elections, plans to continue to hold canvassing events and phone banks through the summer. To drive turnout, the coordinated campaign will focus on key constituencies such as women, students and veterans, party chairman Ray Buckley wrote in a memo to mark 100 days from the election. At the federal and gubernatorial level, the party will focus on issues such as women’s access to contraception, the cost of higher education and increasing the minimum wage, issues which trickle down into state races.

The Republican Party, meanwhile, will focus its statewide efforts on painting Hassan and Democrats in office as irresponsible and ineffective when it comes to writing a budget and boosting the economy.

Taxing times

The real estate transfer tax became the latest point of attack against Gov. Maggie Hassan this week.

The real estate transfer tax? Talk about something in terms of a governor secretly trying to raise taxes, and you can make almost anything politically intriguing.

Here’s what happened: The Department of Revenue Administration recently requested a rule change that would specify its ability to tax ground leases, such as when someone rents land to a grocery store company to build on. The DRA claims it has always had that ability and has been collecting the tax, but wanted to make it clearer in the law.

But Senate Republicans say the DRA never had that ability, and it is now trying to push through a tax increase without consulting the Legislature. They’re pointing to a rule that says any leases under 99 years are not subject to the transfer tax, which assesses a 1.5 percent tax on real estate sales, half coming from the buyer and half from the seller.

Republicans are laying the blame directly at Hassan’s feet.

“Bureaucrats cannot and should not expand an existing tax on their own. The law cannot mean whatever Governor Hassan wants it to mean,” Sen. David Boutin, a Hooksett Republican said in a release this week. Boutin put out the release alongside Sen. John Reagan, a Deerfield Republican and chairman of the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules, which deals with the tax rules.

Interestingly, Senate Republican leadership hasn’t made any comments on the issue. But Boutin and Reagan are facing Republican primaries, with Boutin facing a challenger on the right who is pointing toward his support for increasing the gas tax, among other things.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Walt Havenstein was quick to pile on with the criticism of Hassan.

“She should be honest about it with voters and try to pass a bill through the Legislature. If she thinks she can follow Barack Obama’s lead and use her pen and phone to act alone, she should be willing to say why,” he said in a release.

But John Beardmore, commissioner of the Department of Revenue Administration, said Hassan played no role in the dispute over whether taxing ground leases is allowed.

“The governor’s office had no involvement in the drafting of these rules,” he said.

He says the DRA has always considered it legal to tax long-term ground leases at the regular real estate transfer tax rate of 1.5 percent, with .75 percent each being paid by the leassor and leassee. To justify it, he’s pointing to a different part of the law that says the state can impose the tax on “the sale, granting and transfer of real estate and any interest therein.”

Beardmore said he didn’t have numbers on how much is actually collected from the tax, but he did say no one has ever challenged it.

Following the money

Digging through federal campaign finance reports gives quite the education in political fundraising. Both Jeanne Shaheen’s and Scott Brown’s second quarter fundraising reports became available this week. They take a long time to dig through, but they’re full of interesting tidbits that show just how far and wide candidates look when seeking money to fund their campaigns.

For example: A lot of people are willing to give money to people halfway across the country. Just look at all the donors from Arizona and Illinois who donated to Scott Brown in the second quarter.

Another lesson: There is a political action committee for everything. Even really obscure things, such as the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union PAC, which gave Shaheen $2,500. She also got $1,000 from the Walt Disney Production Employees PAC and $500 from the Farmers Education & Co-operative Union of America PAC, among many, many more.

Committees for major companies such as Boeing, Coca-Cola and Sony Pictures also contributed to Shaheen. It’s likely that most of these PACs made contributions to other incumbents, too.

Famous people also like to donate money. Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg gave $2,600 to Shaheen. Damon Lindelof, co-creator of the TV show Lost, gave her $1,000.

Reports for all U.S. Senate and House candidates are available on the Federal Election Commission’s website (fec.gov) for those inclined to look through them.

Campaign notes

∎ Brown released the names of 203 veterans supporting his candidacy earlier this week, capping off a two-week focus on veterans’ issues. Shaheen, by comparison, released a list of 100 veterans backing her last week.

∎ Brown received the endorsement of former U.S. Rep. Charlie Bass on Friday. Bass, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 14 years (with a break from 2007 to 2011), said the party “must unify around Brown today.” Speaking of unity, Bass won his 2010 primary with just 42 percent of the vote in a 5-person field.

∎ 1st congressional district candidate Frank Guinta is the latest Republican to receive the endorsement of Craig Benson, New Hampshire’s only Republican governor in the past 18 years. He served only one term and faced numerous allegations of corrupt practices within his office. But that hasn’t stopped Republicans from soliciting his endorsements. He’s also lent his support to Brown and Havenstein.

∎ New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will be back in New Hampshire on Thursday for a fundraiser at the Fisher Cats game. Christie is chairman of the Republican Governors Association, which held its annual meeting in Aspen, Colo., last week. Havenstein, whom Christie endorsed last month, was at the meeting.

∎ In a new campaign video, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jim Rubens promised that, if elected, he’d only seek two terms, refuse to take the pension provided to members of Congress and fight to make sure all laws that Congress is subject to every law they create. A centerpiece of the Rubens campaign has been attacking Shaheen and Brown for being “career politicians.”

∎ Last Wednesday, Shaheen and three other Democratic senators called for the Senate to vote on the energy efficiency legislation she co-wrote with U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican. You may remember this as the bill that Brown spoke about earlier this year with several Republican senators who later blocked a vote from happening.

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified Rep. George Lambert’s political party and the number of people running in the Republican primary for state Senate District 8. Lambert is a registered Republican, and there are two people running in the District 8 primary.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)

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