Former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte was sailing along in New Hampshire’s Republican senate primary. She was way ahead of her Republican opponents — and her potential Dem rival Rep. Paul Hodes — in the polls, was backed by the establishment GOP, and was even counted among the ranks of Sarah Palin’s “mama grizzlies” when the former half-term governor endorsed Ayotte back in July.
But somewhere between the primary in-fighting and concerns about Ayotte’s conservative record, former state Board of Education chairman and Tea Party-backed candidate Ovide Lamontagne began to gain some ground.The latest Magellan Strategies (R) poll of the Republican race finds Ayotte with 34%, Lamontagne with 21%, and businessman Bill Binnie with 17% ahead of the September 14 primary. The previous Magellan poll, taken in May, had Ayotte at 38%, Binnie at 29%, and Lamontagne all the way down at 9%. That’s a big swing for the tea partying Lamontagne — though there’s not much other public polling of the race to back it up.
Anything could still happen. And Ayotte isn’t necessarily in trouble. But if he does come out on top next week, Lamontagne wouldn’t be the first Tea Party-backed Republican this year to knock off a more mainstream Senate candidate. Sharron Angle in Nevada, Rand Paul in Kentucky, Joe Miller in Alaska, and Ken Buck in Colorado all saw similar arcs in their primary campaigns.
Last week, the conservative paper the Union Leader endorsed Lamontagne, saying that “what he believes makes sense to save our nation from economic ruin; and he will stick to it come hell, high water, or demands from party bosses to ‘go along and get along.'”
Lamontagne has been the comeback kid before. As Steve Kornacki reported last week in Salon, Lamontagne was losing by 27 points during his 1996 bid for governor, but “as voters focused on the race after Labor Day, Lamontagne surged, boosted by the Union Leader’s loud support.” He wound up winning the primary, 48-43, according to Kornacki.
Ayotte may also not be far right enough for some conservatives. She’s staked out some conservative positions, saying she supports repealing the 14th Amendment’s birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants, and that she’d back an Arizona-style immigration law in New Hampshire. But Binnie has hit her for being soft on gun laws. And she’s gotten some flak for making misleading statements about an abortion case she presided over as Attorney General. Though Ayotte has been touting that she “won” the 2009 case, which involved upholding the state’s parental notification laws in the case of underage girls attempting to get abortions, the Nashua Telegraph reports that:
Ayotte approved spending $300,000 in taxpayer money to settle the case and pay the legal costs of the opposing party, after a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge decided Planned Parenthood of Northern New England was the winner.
This could potentially damage Ayotte among conservatives. Eric Erickson of RedState, who supports Lamontagne — though he says he’s not completely opposed to Ayotte either — wrote a post earlier this week listing some of Ayotte’s more moderate dabblings. For example: “Ayotte publicly encouraged people to apply for stimulus money,” “Ayotte said she would have voted yes on Sotomayor,” and “Kelly stopped local police chiefs from attempting to prosecute illegal aliens for trespassing.”
The TPM Poll Average finds Ayotte leading Hodes 48.2%-38% — though both Public Policy Polling and the University of New Hampshire have shown that general election matchup to be tightening. And the Democrat leads Lamontagne in the TPM Poll Average, 41.6%-38.8%.