With 85 percent of precincts reporting, New Hampshire GOP Senate hopeful Kelly Ayotte was ahead by a few hundred votes-less than a percentage point. The vote count was at 121,000 overall, suggesting about 20,000 votes remaining to be counted (smaller precincts mean it’s probably significantly less). All of which suggests that around 15 percent of New Hampshire voters voted in the Republican primary. Why, at the last minute, did so many vote for Ovide LaMontagne (who was barely considered a factor in this race two weeks ago)? Convenient narratives aside, we shouldn’t rush to assign blame or credit to the Tea Party.
In New Hampshire, where a basic “principle” of the Tea Party can be seen on every license plate, Tea Party activists play less as fresh new voices than as amateurs singing a very old song. The Tea Party hasn’t provided the momentum that it did elsewhere. Frank Guinta, who won the right to challenge Carol Shea Porter in the 1st Congressional District, appeared at Tea Party events but did not play up his association with the group in advertising. Jennifer Horn, who did play the Tea Party card (although she appears to have been largely self-annointed) lost the 2nd Congressional District primary to former incumbent Charlie Bass, who lost his seat to Democrat Paul Hodes four years ago.
If Lamontagne wins, the Tea Party can claim a victory over the establishment-supported Ayotte, but the real victory probably goes to two common culprits in primary upsets: overkill and the tendency of primary voters to represent the extreme end of their party. Ayotte has been in a firefight with candidate Bill Binnie (who took 14 percent of the vote) for months, and the mud that was slung stuck to both candidates. Lamontagne, surging late, never became a target. Lamontagne’s credentials as a social conservative went unchallenged, while he was able to piggyback on accusations that Ayotte’s stated views changed once she became a candidate and add an additional narrative of his own, in which she caved too easily when ordered by a court to pay Planned Parenthood’s legal fees in the state’s parental notification challenges. Pro-life groups like the Susan B. Anthony fund came to Ayotte’s defense, but again, the mud stuck. And in a final irony, Lamontagne can play the nonestablishment card because he has never held a major state office, but he gains ballot name recognition because it’s not for lack of trying: He won a gubernatorial primary in 1996, only to lose the election.
New Hampshire’s only true contest in the Democratic primary also went to the more extreme of two candidates: the far-left leaning Ann Kuster defeated Katrina Swett in the 2nd Congressional District. Even before the results are in, overall, the New Hampshire primary is looking like politics as usual.