On the trail: The U.S. Senate GOP primary gets serious

  • New Hampshire Senate President Chuck Morse speaks to a reporter in the executive council chambers at the Statehouse, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017, in Concord, N.H. For two days only, Senate President Morse is New Hampshire's governor. The Republican landed in the state's top job due to a unique political time, with Maggie Hassan resigning to become a U.S. Senator two days before Republican Gov.-elect Chris Sununu is officially sworn in. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) Elise Amendola

For the Monitor
Published: 1/14/2022 3:34:34 PM
Modified: 1/14/2022 3:33:38 PM

Two months after Gov. Chris Sununu grabbed national attention by announcing he would run for reelection in 2022 rather than launch a challenge against Democratic U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, two Republicans are jumping into a race that’s one of a handful that could potentially decide which party controls the Senate next year.

State Senate President Chuck Morse on Thursday filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to create a campaign committee, which will allow the business owner and longtime conservative lawmaker from Salem to start fundraising for his Senate bid. Morse also announced some key staff hires this week.

And Londonderry town manager Kevin Smith announced on Monday night that he would be stepping down from his position “to formally announce my candidacy for the United States Senate in the not too distant future.”

U.S. Senate Republicans need a net gain of just one seat in November’s midterm elections to win back the majority in the chamber that they lost a year ago, when they were swept in the Jan. 5, 2021, twin runoff contests in Georgia.

While the GOP is defending 20 of the 34 seats up for grabs this year, including five seats where Republican incumbents are retiring, they view four Democratic senators in extremely competitive general election battleground states as very vulnerable. And due to her lackluster polling position throughout most of 2021, Hassan is one of the four.

Sununu was courted for much of last year by national Republicans hoping to recruit him to run. But the governor’s decision in early November to seek another two-year term steering the state rather than challenge Hassan – his predecessor in the corner office – instantly took what would have been one of the most expensive, competitive and consequential Senate races in the 2022 midterm elections and moved it, at least temporarily, from the A-list to the B-list.

Morse, a policy-driven conservative lawmaker who owns and runs the Freshwater Farms Nursery & Garden Center in Atkinson, told the Monitor in a statement that “this will be a serious race, and it will take experience and a proven track record to win and take NH’s fight to DC. I obviously believe that I have what it takes to win a statewide race in the state of New Hampshire.”

“I honestly believe that I’ve done a good job in New Hampshire on reducing taxes and growing the economy. Compare that to Washington,” the state Senate president added.

Morse said he’ll formally launch his campaign on Saturday, Jan. 29, at his lawn and garden center. Last week he brought onboard, as his general consultant, New Hampshire-based GOP strategist David Carney, a veteran of numerous Republican presidential, Senate and gubernatorial campaigns. And this week Morse announced that another Granite State-based veteran of national Republican campaigns, Jim Merrill, would serve as finance chair. And he hired New Hampshire GOP executive director Joe Sweeny as campaign manager.

Carney told the Monitor that “the amount of support from grassroots leaders around the state’s been great and we look forward to taking the wood to Hassan in the fall.”

Smith, like Morse, is well known in Republican political circles in New Hampshire. He won election as a state representative and later ran for the 2012 GOP gubernatorial nomination. He also served as executive director of the conservative advocacy group Cornerstone Action and in 2017 was appointed by Sununu as chair of the board of directors at the Pease Development Authority, which oversees expansion and operations at the Pease Tradeport, site of a former Air Force base.

Morse and Smith join retired Gen. Don Bolduc, who until now was the only declared candidate in the Senate GOP primary race. Bolduc, the runner-up for the 2020 GOP Senate nomination who launched his second Senate bid 14 months ago, has struggled with fundraising.

Longtime New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Ray Buckley, pointing the current abortion case in front of the Supreme Court, warned that “with the Supreme Court poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, there could not be a more urgent time to stand up for reproductive freedom.”

“Make no mistake, reproductive freedom is on the ballot in 2022, and the New Hampshire Democratic Party will hold every would-be Republican Senate candidate to account for their anti-women and anti-choice records,” he argued.

More candidates could potentially join the GOP Senate primary in the coming weeks. New Hampshire education commission and former gubernatorial candidate Frank Edelblut has been mulling a Senate campaign, as has investment and media executive and 2010 Senate candidate Bill Binnie, and former U.S. Rep. Frank Guinta.

Hassan and fellow Democrats face historical headwinds in the 2022 elections, as the party that controls the White House traditionally suffers setbacks in the ensuing midterms. To make matters worse, Democrats across the country will have to deal with an unfavorable political environment that’s compounded by President Biden’s underwater approval ratings.

But regardless, ousting Hassan in November won’t be easy, as she has a history of winning tough elections.

Hassan, as a first term governor in 2014, won reelection during another cycle that was horrendous for Democrats, and she narrowly came out on top in a blockbuster battle with then-Sen. Kelly Ayotte in 2016. And Hassan’s continuing to build a formidable fundraising war chest.

Succeeding Morse as NH Senate president

With Morse running for U.S. Senate, there’s some speculation that state Senate majority leader Jeb Bradley might make a move to succeed Morse as Senate president, if the GOP retains their majority in the chamber in November’s elections.

The former two-term U.S. representative and longtime Republican state senator from Wolfeboro told the Monitor that “I am focused on the 2022 session, helping Senator Morse and helping my colleagues in their re-election efforts. The time for discussion about Senate leadership will come later.”

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