On the trail: O’Brien endorsement of Messner ‘defines’ Senate GOP primary

  • O’Brien

  • Former New Hampshire House speaker Bill O’Brien has dropped his senate bid to challenge U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. JIM COLE / AP file

For the Monitor
Published: 4/3/2020 10:54:06 AM

Struggling to fund his attempt to take on Jeanne Shaheen, former New Hampshire House speaker Bill O’Brien suspended his U.S. Senate campaign and endorsed primary rival Bryant “Corky” Messner.

Longtime New Hampshire based GOP consultant Jim Merrill said the move clearly “gives Messner the upper hand” over retired Gen. Don Bolduc, the other remaining Republican candidate in the GOP nomination race.

“It really defines this race now,” said Merrill, a veteran of the George W. Bush, Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio presidential campaigns.

O’Brien ended his bid on Thursday. He immediately backed Messner, an Army Ranger veteran who graduated from West Point and a self-made millionaire trial lawyer who moved to New Hampshire after living for years in Colorado.

The winner of September’s GOP primary will challenge Shaheen in the general election, a two-term Democratic senator who served six years as New Hampshire’s governor.

“Unfortunately, it has become apparent to me that my campaign is not going to be sufficiently financed to take on” Shaheen, O’Brien said in his statement announcing he was dropping out.

“We truly need for Jeanne Shaheen to be replaced and New Hampshire Republicans have to nominate a strong candidate who can do just that,” O’Brien said. “Corky is the replacement we are seeking.”

O’Brien struggled with fundraising since jumping into the race last summer. So has Bolduc. And raising campaign cash won’t be any easier going forward as the coronavirus pandemic has come close to crashing the economy and the stock markets, limiting the ability of potential campaign donors to make contributions. Fundraising doesn’t appear to be an issue for Messner, who’s already infused his campaign with some $3.2 million of his own money.

Merrill predicted that Messner “is going to be able to run as an outsider and as a conservative running to the right of Gen. Bolduc. He’s got more funds and he’s going to be able to paint Bolduc as an establishment favorite who’s chronically underfunded and is not going to be able to prosecute the case against Sen. Shaheen.”

He said that O’Brien’s move is “probably the most important day for Corky Messner on the campaign and if I’m Gen. Bolduc, I’m concerned.”

With the coronavirus outbreak forcing most Granite Staters to huddle in their homes in hopes of preventing the spread of the deadly COVID-19 disease, what was already expected to be a low turnout primary in September may be even lower going forward.

Merrill said that O’Brien’s endorsement will attract some Republicans to Messner, who may have seen him as an outsider.

O’Brien “is a well known figure and someone that people respect that’s going to drive a lot of support and attention to Messner,” Merrill said.

David Carney, another longtime New Hampshire based Republican consultant and a veteran of numerous presidential campaigns, disagreed on the importance of the O’Brien endorsement.

Carney suggested that both Messner and Bolduc may enjoy minor benefits.

“Getting one person off the ballot and that handful of scattering that O’Brien would have gotten helps (Messner and Bolduc),” Carney noted.

Tom Rath, a former state attorney general and Concord-based Republican consultant and presidential campaign veteran, said the Senate primary battle to date has “been a largely invisible race that’s being run within the confines of the core to the right of center of the Republican Party.”

He predicted the race would heat up in the summer.

“The race is going to be run from the middle of August until the second week of September,” Rath said, adding, “the turnout for the Republican primary will be small.”

General election concerns

Carney said the big question going forward is “how conservative or to the right is Corky willing to go to hamper his ability to win in the general election. We’ve seen that a lot in New Hampshire where people go so far to the right or left that they become unacceptable in the general election.”

And he stressed that the pandemic “clearly gives incumbents the upper hand, even more than normally.”

He had a message for both candidates: “They need to be engaged in the conversation in a productive, positive, way. And the partisan petty politics that we always see in a primary on both sides will not help whomever wins the primary.”

Rath, a moderate Republican who most recently was a senior national adviser on then-Ohio governor John Kasich’s 2016 presidential campaign, explained that “the strength of New Hampshire has always been in the middle.”

And in a warning to whomever wins the GOP primary, he highlighted “where does Jeanne Shaheen get elected? She gets elected from the middle.”

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