Former Senate President Chuck Morse kicked off New Hampshire’s primary candidate filing period Wednesday morning, declaring himself the true conservative in the race for governor while hitting his opponent Kelly Ayotte as a moderate who’s soft on immigration enforcement.

“I think there’s a big difference between myself and Kelly Ayotte,” Morse said, drawing cheers from a crowd of supporters lining the hallway outside Secretary of State David Scanlan’s office. “I started as a conservative, and I finished as a conservative as Senate president, and I promise you, I will be a governor that’s a conservative.

“That’s not what Kelly did when she went to Washington.”

Yet Ayotte remains the frontrunner in the GOP gubernatorial primary, based on the most recent polling and campaign finance figures.

Ayotte held a commanding 50-28 percent lead over Morse in last month’s NHJournal/Praecones Analytica poll. And while the next campaign finance figures aren’t due until June 19, the previous filing in December showed Ayotte outraising Morse by a three-to-one margin.

The top candidates for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination are Executive Councilor Cinde Warmington and former Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig. Campaign finance figures from December show Ayotte raised more during that period than Craig and Warmington combined.

Morse is betting his conservative record and outspoken support for former President Donald Trump will help him defeat Ayotte. During his filing Wednesday, the former state Senate president ripped Ayotte’s voting record in the U.S. Senate, particularly her support for the so-called “Gang of Eight” immigration amnesty deal.

Morse also pointed to the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation’s scorecard rating naming Ayotte the third most liberal member of the Senate by the time she was narrowly ousted from office in 2016.

“That’s not how I’m going to run the state of New Hampshire,” Morse said. “I will win this primary because I’m covering every city in town in the state of New Hampshire and I’m talking to people in every city in town.”

Ayotte spokesperson John Corbett fired back.

“Career Politician Chuck Morse is lying, losing, and desperate because voters are rejecting his record of making New Hampshire less safe. Chuck deep-sixed the sanctuary city ban and pushed the failed bail reform that has led to more crime on our streets. Kelly is the only candidate in this race with a track record of keeping New Hampshire safe and that’s why Granite Staters trust her to be our next governor.”

Republican Chuck Morse files paperwork to enter the GOP gubernatorial primary, June 5, 2024

Morse also took a shot at Ayotte for holding fundraising events in and around Washington, D.C., saying he thinks “it’s more important to be out on the campaign trail and not down in Virginia raising money with people that are trying to influence the state of New Hampshire.”

Ayotte is currently scheduled to travel to the D.C. suburb of McLean, Va., Thursday to attend a fundraiser in her honor hosted by Bobbie and Bill Kilberg. The Kilbergs, politically active in Republican politics dating back to the Nixon administration, made headlines in 2022 when they hosted a fundraiser for then-Wyoming GOP U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney — arguably the most noteworthy intraparty foe of President Donald Trump.

“We are moving beyond Donald Trump,” Bobbie Kilberg told CNN at the time. “Enough, already. Enough’s enough.”

Yet the influence of Trump continues to be a factor, especially in New Hampshire, where Morse made an early endorsement in the First in the Nation presidential primary. Ayotte has also endorsed Trump, but after he became the presumptive nominee.

Asked if he needs Trump’s endorsement to win, Morse said his policies make him the Trump candidate, with or without a formal endorsement.

“Well, let’s put it this way: We’re on the campaign trail and we’re talking about what we believe needs to happen,” he said. “It’s the Trump movement, right?”

Morse said the biggest issue in the primary is his record in the Senate, particularly on issues like constitutional carry, Education Freedom Accounts, and tax cuts.

“I think the issue is I got it done,” he said. “All those things got done when I was Senate president, and I’ll continue to do that as governor.”

Morse was also asked about his working relationship with Ayotte, with whom he’d worked closely with during her 2004-2009 stint as state attorney general, and what changed that dynamic.

He said the “defining moment” happened in the summer of 2015 when Republicans were engaged in a grueling standoff with then-Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan over the state budget, which ultimately resulted in a series of tax cuts Morse and others successfully negotiated.

“We overrode [Hassan’s] budget and basically got the Democrats to unite with the Republicans to pass a budget,” Morse said. “And then Kelly didn’t unite with the Republican Party and we lost a U.S. Senate seat.

“I certainly believe that’s where the difference started, because she became the third-most liberal senator at that point in time.”

Morse supporter Emmett Horgan of Rye told NHJournal he thinks Ayotte is more interested in Washington, D.C., than New Hampshire.

“She’s out looking for the dollars in Washington,” he said. “She doesn’t care about us.”

As for Morse, Horgan said “he’s grounded here and is a New Hampshire person.”

“The key is you have to look at his record and what he’s done for the state of New Hampshire,” Horgan said. “I know Chuck, and he is the salt of the earth. His care for the state is genuine.”

Wednesday marked the first of the state’s 10-day candidate filing period. The deadline is Friday, June 14.