Capital Beat: Let Concord’s state Senate primary drama begin

Last modified: 6/16/2014 3:53:01 PM
A cast of half a dozen potential Democratic candidates hoping to replace retiring state senator Sylvia Larsen has dwindled to two, with attorney Dan Feltes emerging as the lone primary challenger to school board member Kass Ardinger, Larsen’s pre-ordained pick.

Ask any politically involved person in Concord, and this is the most drama they’ve seen in a while.

Larsen was first elected to the seat in 1994 and has easily held it since. Her retirement announcement two weeks ago surprised nearly everyone, including her Senate colleagues and many of the Democrats who later admitted they wanted the seat.

The one Democrat who wasn’t surprised? Ardinger. Larsen pre-vetted her as a candidate, a move that elicited anger from some people within the party. The fact that Larsen and party members had said all 11 Senate Democrats were running for re-election just weeks before Larsen’s announcement didn’t help.

That frustration was visible as several candidates who were poised to throw their hats in the ring dropped out, one by one.

“These circumstances have left many potential candidates, including me, without the capacity to thoughtfully prepare for this serious undertaking. Running for public office requires family support, professional flexibility and significant financial backing. It takes time for most aspiring candidates to put these matters in order,” possible candidate Jennifer Frizzell said in an email to friends after deciding not to run.

Likewise, Concord attorney Andru Volinsky said he didn’t have sufficient time to make sure his clients would be taken care of, and Jay Surdukowski, another local attorney, said he wouldn’t have time to reorder his life for a bid “in a manner of mere days.”

In contrast, hours after Larsen announced her retirement, she introduced Ardinger at a fundraiser for Senate Democrats, and Ardinger had a piece of mail seeking money in Concord mailboxes the next day. Larsen told the Monitor last week that she talked to Ardinger in advance because she wanted to make sure a capable person would run for her seat. Ardinger, she said, has the time and energy to be a good senator and already has experience running for citywide office.

Ardinger, for her part, said she feels badly that feelings were hurt but is not apologizing for how things happened.

“It’s unfortunate that some people felt that tension, but I’m not apologizing for that, because I have nothing to apologize for,” she said.

Putting aside the questions of who knew what when, the primary itself should be substantial and possibly dramatic. District 15, which includes Concord, Hopkinton, Henniker and Warner, is heavily Democratic, meaning the primary will be more competitive than the general election.

And because the seat is a given for Democrats – it was one of only five seats that stayed Democratic during the 2010 Republican wave – local Democrats say the primary will be a contest of two things: 1. Who is more progressive and 2. Who has a better organization.

Both candidates will face obstacles on the second question.

Ardinger, who has been on the school board for eight years, is likely to raise more money than Feltes. Larsen’s backing helps with that. Ardinger also has name recognition from her time on the board.

She chaired the board during the process to build three new elementary schools. She said she’s heard enthusiasm on the trail about her work on the schools, and many people are happy with how the effort turned out. But there are still Concord residents who weren’t thrilled with how the project was handled.

Feltes may not come close to Ardinger fundraising wise, but he’s well connected in Democratic circles. In recent years, for example, he’s held fundraisers at his home for U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster and Gov. Maggie Hassan, and even for Vice President Joe Biden.

He has never run for elected office but is well known around the State House through his work with New Hampshire Legal Assistance, a job he resigned from on Friday. In that role, he advocated on behalf of low- to middle-income people on issues such as housing and employment security.

One local Democrat characterized the race like this: “I think it’s likely that (Feltes) is facing a money gap and (Ardinger) is facing an enthusiasm gap. Whichever of them are able to fix that issue best are in a good place to win.”

The primary is Sept. 9.

Reading the Virginian tea leaves

In case you missed it, U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, lost his primary last week, and he lost badly. Little-known economics professor David Brat raised a 10th of the money Cantor did, yet won the race by 10 percentage points.

What, exactly, does this have to do with New Hampshire? Ask Scott Brown, and it means voters are sick of their current representation in Congress, such as Jeanne Shaheen. Ask Jim Rubens, and it means the ‘Washington establishment pick’ with all the money, or Scott Brown, doesn’t have a lock on the race. Ask Bob Smith, and it means people are looking for a truly conservative voice, like his.

A Super PAC backing Rubens, the New Hampshire PAC to Save America, wasted no time capitalizing on the Cantor loss. By Wednesday, voters across Concord had a pro-Rubens piece of mail in their boxes from the group, highlighting Rubens as a “CONSERVATIVE REFORM” leader.

Rubens himself had this to say: “Voters are fed up to their eye teeth with career politicians busy feathering their own nests and who have forgotten about their constituents. Their river of campaign money will not defeat the candidate who has built the grassroots support.”

But ask Smith, and Rubens isn’t the race’s real conservative. Karen Testerman, who had been running for U.S. Senate, decided to back Smith yesterday instead of filing her own paperwork to get in the race, saying she didn’t want to divide the conservative vote this fall.

“I don’t know if all of you felt this when you came in, but there was a breeze blowing . . . it was coming from Virginia,” Smith said Friday . “The breeze is blowing and it’s coming here, it’s coming to New Hampshire.”

Then there’s Brown, who released a memo Wednesday titled “Why Jeanne Shaheen should be worried about Eric Cantor’s election loss.” The first point was her support for an immigration reform bill that passed through the Senate last summer before dying in the House. In Virginia, Brat decried Cantor’s support for several pieces of a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

“In New Hampshire, polling data shows “widespread opposition” to Shaheen’s immigration approach,” Brown’s memo said. “The Obama-Shaheen pro-amnesty immigration policies are a non-starter with voters.”

No mentioned in the memo that Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who just endorsed Brown, also voted for the bill in the Senate.

Democrats gave their two cents, too.

“This foreshadows bad news for Scott Brown and Walt Havenstein, who will have to spend the next few months pandering to the Tea Party in order to advance their primary politics, all the while leaving them poorly positioned for November,” state party chairman Ray Buckley said in a statement.

Less mentioned by everyone is the fact that Cantor had a horrible record of constituent service given his focus on the leadership role. Or the fact that, you know, New Hampshire isn’t the 7th Congressional District of Virginia. But trying to read the tea leaves sure is fun.

The energy tax fight

The state Republican party and the Scott Brown campaign have been hammering U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen for supporting a carbon tax, or what they call a national energy tax. But her staff strongly disputes her support for one.

Here are the facts: Republicans are pointing to Shaheen’s vote for an amendment proposed by Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, also a Democrat, last year that established a “deficit-neutral reserve fund relating to ensuring that all revenue from a fee on carbon pollution is returned to the American people.”

Whitehouse himself said on the U.S. Senate floor that the vote would allow for a price on carbon.

To be very clear: That amendment, which failed, didn’t actually put a tax on carbon. Whitehouse said later he believes a tax on carbon is “inevitable” and the amendment was aimed at making sure the money went back to the American people. also wrote that an ad by Americans for Prosperity which accused another Democratic senator of voting for a carbon tax by backing the amendment was misleading.

Still, it’s fair for Republicans to question Shaheen’s stance on a carbon tax, especially given the commitment by billionaire Tom Steyer’s environmental super PAC to spend big money in New Hampshire on Shaheen’s behalf.

She has never and “does not” support a carbon tax, her staff said.

“Sen. Shaheen has never supported a carbon tax,” said her office spokesman, Shripal Shah. “She supports market-driven solutions like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) which has made serious investments in the New Hampshire and New England’s energy future and resulted in lower pollution.”

RGGI is a mandatory, regional cap and trade program.

The New Hampshire Republican Party scoffed at this denial of support for a carbon tax, and noted that Shaheen voted against an amendment last year to block a carbon tax.

“It’s laughable for her to deny supporting a national energy tax when she voted to establish one and thwarted efforts to block one. It’s a desperate election year stunt designed to distract from her support for policies that will kill jobs and increase energy costs in New Hampshire,” party spokesman Lauren Zelt said in a statement.

Shaheen’s fundraising on Friday in Chicago with the League of Conservation Voters, which supports a carbon tax, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which advocates for cap and trade, only gives Republicans more fodder for their criticism of Shaheen’s environmental positions.

The race is on

More than four months before we’ll find out which party takes control of the New Hampshire House, representatives are already lining up to run for House speaker.

Among the Republican candidates: former speakers Bill O’Brien of Mont Vernon and Gene Chandler of Bartlett, as well as Laurie Sanborn of Bedford. On the Democratic side, Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff of Penacook announced his bid for the top job on Thursday. Rumor has it former state senator and gubernatorial candidate Jackie Cilley, now a candidate for the House, may want the speaker’s gavel as well.

Shurtleff has built up a lot of goodwill among his colleagues for his willingness to listen to and respect all sides. Several prominent Democrats, including Ways and Means Committee Chair Susan Almy, Executive Departments and Administration Chairwoman Lucy Weber and Rep. Renny Cushing, the champion for death penalty repeal, are already supporting Shurtleff.

Chandler, currently House minority leader, was speaker from 2001 to 2004. He resigned the speakership after the ethics committee found he failed to report $64,000 worth of donations.

O’Brien, of course, led the House from 2010 to 2012, when the Tea Party wave had firm control. But his reign was controversial, as House Republicans pushed policies from repealing same-sex marriage to limiting reproductive rights.

Sanborn, for her part, is more of an up-and-comer within the party and has ascended the ladders of leadership quickly. In her second term, she is Republican policy leader and well-respected by fellow members. She and her husband, state Sen. Andy Sanborn, own the Draft in Concord.

What to watch

∎ New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will be in New Hampshire on Friday to campaign with Walt Havenstein, a Republican candidate for governor. Christie’s visit will bring national political reporters to the state; they will try to suss out what the visit says about his future political ambitions. It’s also a strong boost for Havenstein, as Christie leads the Republican Governors Association.

∎  Candidate filings will continue to trickle into the Secretary of State’s Office next week, as House candidates have to file with their hometown clerks.

∎ Hassan will hold capital budget hearings on Monday and Tuesday, during which state agencies bring forward their wish lists for capital improvement projects. The meetings start at 10:15 a.m. on Monday in LOB Room 210-211.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the towns included in Senate District 15. The district includes Warner, not Weare.

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

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