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The last Tea Party test: New Hampshire



Can former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte beat back a tea party challenge in Tuesday's Senate primary? AP Photo/Jim Cole

By Aaron Blake

New Hampshire GOP Senate frontrunner Kelly Ayotte has former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's endorsement, but if she wins Tuesday she might owe more thanks to Christine O'Donnell.

As the national Tea Party movement has focused on O'Donnell's insurgent Senate primary race against moderate Rep. Mike Castle in the Delaware GOP Senate primary, the emergence of tea party candidate Ovide Lamontagne against Ayotte has largely escaped the attention of the media.

It shouldn't.

GOP sources say if anyone pulls an upset of Ayotte in a crowded primary field, it's more likely to be Lamontagne, the party's gubernatorial nominee in 1996, rather than the two free-spending businessmen in the contest.

The lack of focus on the New Hampshire race -- and the difficulty in prognosticating its outcome -- has largely come from a (maddening!) dearth of quality public polling, but conversations with GOP strategists in the Granite State suggest an upset isn't out of the question.

"Right now, he's the frontrunners' biggest nightmare, because they really don't know what to do," said longtime New Hampshire GOP strategist Tom Rath who is neutral in the race. "You can't attack him because he's like a sacred cow, and you can't get to his right."

Added former state GOP Chairman Fergus Cullen: "I think Kelly's going to win this thing, but I don't think it's impossible that Ovide ... comes out the surprising winner."

Sources say a recent automated poll from Magellan Strategies, which had Ayotte up 34 percent to 21 percent on Lamontagne, is pretty close to reality. And Lamontagne's campaign is set to release an internal poll this afternoon that shows him down 34 percent to 24 percent (two other candidates are at 12).

The attorney and former state Board of Education chairman got a big boost when the influential New Hampshire Union Leader endorsed him, and tonight's WMUR-TV debate presents another opportunity to make up real ground.

But can he do it? Let's break it down

WHY LAMONTAGNE PULLS THE UPSET

It's happened before

Even though Cullen thinks Ayotte wins, there's still a part of him leaving the door open to Lamontagne. That's because in 1996, when Cullen was the finance director for Lamontagne's gubenatorial campaign, things looked a lot like they do right now.

"I can't help but remember this very weekend back in 1996, and I gave up on Ovide this weekend," Cullen said.

Lamontagne, of course, went on to pull off a shocking upset against establishment-favored former Rep. Bill Zeliff.

Sharron Angle

Another instructive example in assessing Lamongtagne's chances is Angle's upset in the Nevada GOP Senate primary earlier this year. Basically, Angle's two opponents knocked the stuffing out of each other while the more-conservative Angle picked up the pieces and shot up the middle in the closing days.

Wealthy businessman Bill Binnie has gone after Ayotte hard on an alleged Ponzi scheme during her time as state attorney general and Ayotte has engaged him and hit back. Lamontagne, meanwhile, has escaped the crossfire and comes into the final days of the primary virtually untouched (though Binnie did launch a robocall against him this week).

Low turnout

Yes, we know -- almost every primary has low turnout. But when you combine low turnout with a small state and a crowded field of viable candidates (self-funding businessman Jim Bender should also get a decent share on Tuesday) the result can be surprising. (See Alaska's Senate race.)

Lamontagne may only need to win 40,000 votes and 30 percent of the vote to pull off the win. (There are no runoffs in New Hampshire.) That's decidedly doable for a candidate with Lamontagne's residual name ID and conservative following.

WHY HE DOESN'T

Vote-splitting

When there's a clear establishment favorite in a race and a crowded field running against him or her, that crowded field usually splits up the anti-frontrunner vote. With Lamontagne, Binnie and Bender all expected to win double-digit support, those anti-establishment voters don't have a consensus choice right now.

The good thing for Lamontagne is that Binnie is very much counting on moderates and independents, running ads in the closing days of the campaign emphasizing his support for abortion rights. That's a completely different slice of the primary electorate than Lamontagne is seeking.

Money

Lamontagne launched his first TV ad just this month, and he's been exponentially outspent on the airwaves by Binnie ($7 million in receipts), Ayotte ($3 million) and Bender ($2 million).

A grassroots campaign can work in New Hampshire, but money always helps (don't forget that the southern half of the state is covered by the pricey Boston media market), and Lamontagne, who has raised about $500,000, hasn't had much.

Sarah Palin

Lamontagne's 1996 victory is only so instructive because Ayotte has carved a much more conservative profile than Zeliff did. In fact, Ayotte has secured key conservative endorsements from Palin, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and, most recently, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). Lamontagne, meanwhile, hasn't been able to woo big-name tea party support along the lines of a Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) or the Tea Party Express. (The Tea Party Express has pledged to spend $250,000 on O'Donnell's campaign in Delaware.)

Regardless of what happens on Tuesday, the GOP nominee will face Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) in the general election.

By Aaron Blake  | September 9, 2010; 2:30 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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