Corky Messner’s millionaire meet-up on Tuesday lived up to all expectations.
Yes, it was that bad.
In the room with Messner were businessman Bill Binnie, former NH-01 Rep. Frank Guinta and, somewhat surprisingly, state Senate President Chuck Morse.
Staying far away were Commissioner of Education Frank Edelblut and Londonderry Town Manager Kevin Smith. (Retired Gen. Don Bolduc didn’t get an invite.)
What was accomplished? Messner told NHJournal it was “a productive discussion and the beginning of a process.” The goal of that process is to help the NHGOP avoid a contested primary which, Messner keeps telling anyone who will listen, he believes will all-but-doom his party’s nominee in the general election against Sen. Maggie Hassan next November.
When Messner talks about the challenges Republicans face — in particular, the extremely narrow window between the GOP primary in September and the start of early or absentee voting just a few weeks later — he makes a strong point.
But when he’s asked exactly how this “process” of herding candidates into Binnie’s Manchester office for a very public meeting is supposed to result in a consensus candidate, the wheels come off.
Are the candidates supposed to argue each other out of the race? Have a bank account measuring contest? Cut cards? Compete in feats of strength?
There is simply no “process” that will stop a serious candidate from seeking an office he or she truly wants. And there’s certainly nothing an experienced campaigner could tell them (Messner and Binnie have each run for office just once) that a competent candidate doesn’t already know.
How does going hat in hand to a couple of millionaires to discuss whether they think it’s a good idea for you to run for the U.S. Senate make you a stronger candidate? The universal reaction from New Hampshire political pros to Tuesday’s meet-up was, as one put it Tuesday morning, “The optics are terrible.”
Messner rejects the description of the gathering as some sort of permission-seeking or ring-kissing as “a misperception and a misrepresentation. Nobody was saying you can’t do something.”
Which once again begs the question: What were they saying? Shady, backroom dealing is looked down upon by the general public, but if done right, it can have positive results. Virginia’s Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin was picked by a party convention, not a primary, and it’s likely one reason he flipped a blue state from Dems +10 to GOP +2.
But that’s competent backroom dealing. If there was no deal to be made, no leverage to keep out a weak candidate who’ll only hurt the party by running (why is everyone staring at Frank Guinta?), then you’ve got all the downside of “millionaires meet to plot the party’s future” without any of the positives.
It’s all downside — except for the two candidates smart enough to stay away.
Kevin Smith told NHJournal Tuesday night he had a previous commitment that conflicted with the Messner summit. If he’s living in terror of a contested primary, he didn’t show it.
Commissioner Edelblut didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The surprise in GOP political circles was Morse, who didn’t find a way to miss Tuesday’s confab. If there’s a potential candidate who doesn’t need the approval of Binnie, Messner, and Co., it’s Morse. He’s an experienced pol who’s popular inside the party and knows how to raise money. Morse would be a legit candidate for any office in the state, including governor. Which, the thinking goes, is the office he truly wants.
Does running for Senate get him closer to the governor’s office? If he loses, not really. If he wins, definitely not. Does his decision to go slumming with the second-tier candidates say something about his commitment to a Senate campaign?
Messner is a friend, and that could be enough for Morse to show up. And there’s a good chance this will all be forgotten once there are announced candidates in the race.
But in the short term, it’s not a good look for a potential front-runner.
Messner concedes “it may damn well turn out we have a contested primary” regardless of his efforts. Right now it appears that Smith is a “yes,” Binnie is a “probably,” Edelblut is a “still thinking, but if I get in, I’m gonna kick butt!” and Morse is a question mark.
Guinta’s a “why the hell not?” while Bolduc is committed to defeating the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.
As a result, a primary appears all but inevitable. Given Hassan’s weakness, that makes sense. And the primary she’s going to have to run against fellow Democrat Joe Biden to keep from being dragged beneath the coming red wave isn’t going to be a cakewalk.
Messner’s goal — a quality, non-crazy Republican who can appeal to independent voters — is a noble one.
His strategy? Not so much.