Granite State GOP leaders released a statement Thursday that appears to be a generic call for “decorum and respect” from all the Republican primary candidates. But multiple sources confirmed to NHJournal that their message had a very specific audience:

Chuck Morse.

“Today, New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman Chris Ager and New Hampshire Republican National Committee members Juliana Bergeron and Bill O’Brien issued a unified call for decorum and respect among candidates in the upcoming primary elections,” the statement reads. “This call reinforces the importance of adhering to Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.’”

The press release comes days after Morse, the former state Senate president running for governor, used his appearance before the state GOP’s biennial gathering on Saturday to criticize his opponent, former U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, on illegal immigration and amnesty.

The Morse campaign also launched an “Amnesty Ayotte” website, and staffers handed out baseball card-style campaign literature to the convention delegates. They featured the name and face of Darlin Navarro-Turcios, an illegal convicted of assault in a 2014 stabbing death in Philadelphia.

“Just say NO to Amnesty Ayotte this September!” the card read.

While the convention was closed to the press, several attendees contacted NHJournal afterward to criticize Morse for attacking Ayotte while she stood on stage with him. They were also unhappy that Morse chose to go negative just minutes after Ager addressed the crowd and urged Republicans to remain positive and united through the primary season in order to improve their odds in the general election.

“Chuck’s tone wasn’t great, with Sen. Ayotte standing right there beside him,” one Republican insider in attendance told NHJournal. “And remember, there aren’t many things they (Ager, Bergeron, and O’Brien) agree on. They wouldn’t have done this if there wasn’t a lot of negative feedback about Morse’s comments.

“This press release is obviously a shot across Chuck’s bow, letting him know he needs to be more of a Republican team player,” the Republican added.

In the statement, Bergeron said, “Every candidate has the opportunity to present their policy platforms and achievements. We urge them to focus on what they will do for the people of New Hampshire and the United States and how they will uphold the values we hold dear.”

The Morse campaign did not respond to the press release, but campaign manager Maya Harvey told NHJournal after Saturday’s event that the Ayotte campaign had already begun taking shots at them, and Morse didn’t say anything out of line in a competitive primary.

“If [Ayotte] can’t take a 100 percent fact-based argument about her abysmal record in Washington, then how is she going to hold up against the tactics of New Hampshire’s Democrat Party?” Harvey said.

Asked about the press release, Ayotte campaign spokesman John Corbett said, “Kelly is focused on keeping New Hampshire safe, prosperous, and free and ensuring that the Democrats don’t turn our great state into Massachusetts. As for Joyce Craig, Cinde Warmington, and Chuck Morse, it’s clear that Kelly Ayotte is beating them, and they don’t like it!”

What many Granite State Republicans really don’t like are primaries themselves.

Many Republican leaders and party loyalists believe primaries hurt their candidates more than their Democrat competitors. One reason is that Republicans tend to have ideologically-motivated contests that highlight the divide between the traditional vs. more libertarian or populist wings of the party.

And then there’s the fact that Republicans tend to have more contested primaries than Democrats. With a September 10 primary — tied for the latest in the nation — contentious primaries leave GOP candidates just seven or eight weeks to unify the party and raise money before the November general election. Democratic unity lets them focus on November far earlier.

“I’ll tell you one reason that press release went out,” a GOP legislator told NHJournal on background. “It’s because our candidates are attacking each other while the Democrats are doing press conferences together.”

Two days before the GOP convention, former Mayor Joyce Craig and Executive Councilor Cinde Warmington held a joint press event attacking the Republican Party on the abortion issue despite running against each other in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Efforts by New Hampshire’s GOP leadership to prevent political bloodshed aren’t new.

“It’s not unprecedented for the party to step in like this,” said veteran GOP strategist Michael Dennehy. “Back in the 1990s when Steve Duprey was state party chair, he would hold a meeting with the candidates every two weeks to hold them accountable for their actions. It was one of Steve’s many good moves as party chair.”

However, one Morse supporter told NHJournal that this is how campaigns work.

“What’s a primary campaign for if not to make distinctions between the candidates?”

But O’Brien told NHJournal that, while there may be “vigorously competitive primary races among formidable candidates, it is imperative from the outset to curb any inclination to base these contests on factors unrelated to policy or a candidate’s suitability for office.

“This approach ensures voters are informed about whom they should support and the reasons for their support rather than focusing on whom to oppose,” O’Brien said.