GOP Senate race wide open

Last modified: Tuesday, July 06, 2010
Is Kelly Ayotte a tough-on-crime former attorney general, or a candidate of the Washington establishment? Is Bill Binnie a successful businessman who knows how to create jobs, or a liberal Republican buying himself a Senate seat?

As voters begin to tune into the U.S. Senate race, the four Republican candidates - Ayotte, Binnie, Ovide Lamontagne and Jim Bender - are struggling to define and distinguish themselves in time for the Sept. 14 primary. The winner will face Democratic U.S. Rep. Paul Hodes in November. The Senate seat is being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Judd Gregg.

Even as polls put Ayotte in the lead, with Binnie on her heels, it's a race that strategists are calling wide open.

'You can never underestimate the amount of flux in a primary race,' said Dante Scala, associate professor at the University of New Hampshire.

Early on, Ayotte, of Nashua, was seen as the frontrunner. A New Hampshire native, Ayotte spent most of her career in the attorney general's office, first prosecuting homicides, then serving as attorney general from 2004 to 2009. She earned name recognition through her work on several high-profile cases, including the capital murder trial of Michael Addison, who was sentenced to death for killing Manchester police Officer Michael Briggs. She often talks about her middle-class family, particularly her husband - an Iraq war veteran who runs a snow plowing and landscaping business.

Ayotte has garnered support from prominent national Republicans. Gregg has endorsed and campaigned for her. She has received donations from the political action committees of Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, among others. She also has support from numerous New Hampshire legislators, former governors and much of the law enforcement community.

As a result, Ayotte has been able to raise more money than all of her Republican opponents, with support from both PACs and individuals.

But the endorsements also came with an albatross - accusations by Democrats, and some Republicans, that Ayotte is the 'Washington candidate.'

'It's the kiss of death, really a millstone around Ayotte's neck, having been blessed and recruited by Republicans in Washington,' said Republican strategist Dave Carney, who is not working for any candidate.

Cautious campaign

Ayotte has run a cautious campaign, with almost all of her positions in line with the Republican Party's positions. Like all the Republican candidates, Ayotte is a fiscal conservative in favor of lower taxes and less government spending. Like all the candidates, Ayotte supports a repeal of President Obama's health care reform.

Ayotte opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. She has run on her record as attorney general, arguing that she will be tough on crime. She believes the U.S. must secure its borders, opposes amnesty for illegal immigrants and supports Arizona's strict new immigration laws.

'Kelly has been a cautious front-runner, trying to avoid mistakes,' said former Republican Party chairman Fergus Cullen.

Ayotte's tenure as attorney general has also been at the center of most of the criticism leveled against her. Her office gave the legal opinion authorizing Democratic Gov. John Lynch to take $110 million from the Joint Underwriting Association's medical malpractice fund. The state Supreme Court later ruled that the state could not take the money - and Republicans were the first to criticize Lynch for trying to use it.

She was also attorney general while the alleged fraud at Financial Resources Mortgage was going on undetected. Recently, a report by Attorney General Michael Delaney found significant failings in three state departments, including the Department of Justice, for failing to catch the alleged Ponzi scheme. Ayotte, under questioning by a legislative committee, said she was never told of complaints about the firm.

The state Democratic Party so far has almost exclusively attacked Ayotte. Hodes used his first campaign ad to attack Ayotte for her role in failing to catch the alleged fraud. Ayotte fought back with her own attack ad.

'It's clear she's the one Paul Hodes doesn't want to run against,' Republican strategist Tom Rath said.

Binnie moving up

Though Ayotte has remained on top of almost every poll so far, Binnie is catching up.

Binnie, of Rye, is president of Carlisle Capital Corp. in Portsmouth. A successful businessman, Binnie often touts his humble origins as a janitor's son, who worked his way through Harvard, then graduated from Harvard Business School. After business school, Binnie took a job with Carlisle Capital, an investment company in Boston, then acquired its plastics division. Binnie expanded the plastics company, which Tyco bought in 1996 for $130 million. He ultimately took over Carlisle Capital.

Binnie owns the Wentworth by the Sea Country Club in Rye. He is a race car driver who started his own team, Binnie Motorsports. He owns a race car shop in Portsmouth and collects vintage cars. He and his family lived in and owned a home in France for three years while Binnie was working there, though campaign manager Bryan Lanza said Binnie no longer owns the property.

So far, Binnie has loaned his campaign $3 million and has also raised more money from donors than Lamontagne or Bender.

Binnie came into the Senate race with no political experience. He has used his money to bolster his name recognition through paid TV and radio ads and direct mail. One TV ad includes supporter after supporter repeating his name. Others focus on his biography and his economic platform.

'For those voters who are meeting him through his 30-second ads and direct mail, he's making an impact,' Cullen said.

'Every ad is totally positive, about Bill Binnie,' Rath said. 'He has a very good message that fits in with the tenor of the times.'

Binnie has campaigned on his record as a successful businessman, someone who knows how to create jobs and stimulate the economy. He is fiscally conservative and believes giving incentives to businesses is the key to improving the economy. He opposes cap-and-trade policies as an 'energy tax.'

He is also the most socially moderate of his Republican competitors. Binnie is pro-choice and believes gay marriage and civil unions should be left up to the states. In a debate, he was quoted as saying he opposes the Arizona immigration law, though he later came out with a radio ad saying he understood why Arizona passed it. Binnie gave money to Democratic state Sen. Martha Fuller-Clark of Portsmouth when she ran for Congress (though he also donated to her Republican opponent), and his wife has donated to both Democrats and Republicans.

Lamontagne and Bender

If Binnie is the candidate of the Republican Party's moderates, Lamontagne is appealing to the party's right wing. A New Hampshire native who lives in Manchester, Lamontagne is a lawyer at Devine, Millimet & Branch. Lamontagne was chairman of the state Board of Education from 1993 to 1996 and the Republican nominee for governor in 1996.

So far, Lamontagne has fallen behind in virtually all the polls - except for those conducted at Tea Party events, where he has won by large margins. Lamontagne claims to be the only true conservative candidate in the race, both fiscally and socially. He supports dramatic cuts to federal spending, such as abolishing the Department of Education. He wants a simpler, flatter tax rate. He is pro-life and would support a constitutional amendment overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark court decision that limits states' rights to outlaw abortions. His views have led to criticism that he is 'too extreme' for New Hampshire or 'outside the mainstream,' as Democratic Party spokeswoman Emily Browne said.

So far, Lamontagne's campaign has signed up local activists and garnered a handful of national endorsements, spending little money on advertisements - and raising significantly less money than his competitors.

Independent political analyst Dean Spiliotes said he is almost ready to declare the primary a race between Ayotte and Binnie - but not quite. Spiliotes said that early on Lamontagne was seen as a more conservative alternative to Ayotte.

'The feeling was that for Lamontagne to make it a two-person race, he needed to coalesce the Tea Party conservatives, and those folk seem predisposed to him,' Spiliotes said.

But now, Spiliotes said, 'You're not feeling any big groundswell behind (Lamontagne).'

On the other hand, Carney said Lamontagne was counted out of the fight for the Republican nomination for governor in 1996 - which he won. He wound up losing to Jeanne Shaheen by a wide margin.

And Rath said he also would not count out Lamontagne just yet, even though he's been less visible than Ayotte and Binnie.

'If it's very low turnout and it's the base of the party, Ovide's very strong there,' Rath said.

Bender is a Hollis businessman who has turned around several failing companies. Like Binnie, Bender has campaigned on his personal story of working his way up in blue collar positions, then earning a degree from Harvard Business School and becoming successful in business.

Bender supports term limits for senators and has railed against the waste, corruption and growth of federal government. He is pro-choice and in favor of civil unions. He has focused his message on lowering taxes and spending, creating jobs, balancing the budget and restoring trust in government.

Bender has loaned himself $1 million. He had one high-profile hire in Beth Lindstrom, who managed Republican Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown's upset victory. But mostly, he has gained little traction.

Rath said he believes any of the other three candidates have a chance at winning.

'I could make a plausible, arguable case for Jim Bender as well,' Rath added. 'But as credible an individual as he is, he's got a lot of political obstacles to overturn.'