It’s been nearly two weeks since Gov. Chris Sununu stunned the GOP establishment by taking himself out of contention for the 2020 U.S. Senate race. His announcement set off a flurry of speculation (not to mention more than a few profanity-laced emails from inside the National Republican Senatorial Committee) over who would step up for the chance to take on Sen. Maggie Hassan, the weakest Democrat incumbent in the Senate next year.
Last week’s Power Rankings featured a dozen widely-discussed candidates. In Week Two, we’re down to ten. And several of those names are tenuous at best.
In fact, the story of the first week of the campaign is the top three candidates solidifying into a tier of their own. Based on the input from political pros, grassroots activists and pundits, the top three names from last week have worn well. They’re getting nearly all the attention, though pros are quick to note that anyone with a large enough checkbook can make himself a “playa” with the stroke of a pen.
To foster brutal, intra-party honesty, NHJournal is not disclosing the names of the GOP panelists who participated.
Here are the NHJournal GOP Senate Primary Power Rankings for Week Two:
- State Sen. Chuck Morse
- Commissioner of Education Frank Edelbut
- Londonderry Town Manager Kevin Smith
- Bill Binnie
- Ret. General Don Bolduc
- Matt Mowers
- Corky Messner
- Former Congressman Frank Guinta
- Phil Taub
- Rich Ashooh
State Sen. Chuck Morse: The Senate President was out of state when the Sununu news broke, and he was largely off the radar. Then came word of some serious phone activity by Morse to potential donors, and the announcement of a fundraising appearance by former Vice President on behalf of the N.H. Senate Republican PAC on Wednesday, Dec. 8.
The buzz is that Morse is seriously considering taking on Hassan rather than waiting and running for governor in 2024. Morse’s biggest advantage? “Chuck may have opponents, but he has no enemies,” one GOP insider said. Another added: “Morse has had a good week. Ray Buckley is already taking shots at him; that’s how you know he’s the frontrunner.”
Morse’s biggest strength, however, could also become a liability. Voters may not be in the mood to reward political experience or pragmatism.
“The things he’s done because he’s a mature, responsible player (like voting to continue Medicaid expansion and to take the vaccine money) will be dropped on his head like an anvil in a primary,” one experienced operative said.
Commissioner of Education Frank Edelblut:
The prospect of a GOP primary is reminding political insiders that Frank Edelblut has political chops.
“He has a locked-in group of hardcore activists who would crawl across broken glass for him,” one Republican noted. “This election is about a primary. Who can excite and bring out primary voters? Edelblut,” added another. Several others reminded NHJournal Edeblut is also a successful businessman who has some cash to kick-start a campaign.
At the same time, political pros believe Edelblut is also the one candidate who would get the Democratic base the most powered up in the general election. “New Hampshire is still a state that doesn’t send conservatives to Washington. Maybe to the state house. But we don’t put people in the U.S. Senate to stand by Ted Cruz.”
Londonderry Town Manager Kevin Smith:
When Kevin Smith’s name first floated out regarding the U.S. Senate, the first reactions were skeptical. Where has he been? What’s he been doing? He can’t raise any money.
But instead of slipping, Smith’s standing appears to be rising. “He’s being encouraged by the right people and he’s been making calls,” one insider said. Another source says Smith is 75 percent of the way to a “yes.” And he has a lot of assets in a race, another veteran campaigner noted: “geography, experience and lack of a record for Hassan to attack.”
Critics point to, for lack of a better term, a “stature” problem. Morse and Edelblut have been on the field of political combat, while Smith has been taking care of Londonderry town business. “Will people look at him and see a U.S. Senator? It remains to be seen.”
Bill Binnie: The one-time U.S. Senate candidate with the deepest pockets in the field is the one true wild card. “When a guy who can write a $25 million check decides to run, it changes the entire race,” one Republican said. Another added: “Binnie is making calls and by all reports still considering a run, he is possibly the most dangerous potential Republican candidate because of his wealth and N.H. media empire.”
Not everyone is as impressed. “The DSCC would disembowel Binnie. Fortunately, thanks to his penchant for firing Americans from good-paying jobs and replacing them with people from Mexico, he’d be unlikely to survive a primary.”
Gen. Don Bolduc: It’s a testament to the mood of the GOP primary electorate that Bolduc is in the second tier, and not dismissed as a non-starter. On the one hand, he’s embraced conspiracy theories and trashed popular Republican Gov. Chris Sununu. On the other hand, he’s a frequent guest on Fox News, and a darling of fringe media figures like Steve Bannon. And he polled at 42 percent against Hassan in a head-to-head earlier this year.
As one longtime NHGOP activist put it: “Republican insiders ignore Bolduc at their own peril.”
Plus, unlike the rest of the field, Bolduc is actually running. If someone lower in the rankings decides to jump in, the numbers will no doubt adjust accordingly.
DOESN’T WANT TO RUN AND PROBABLY WON’T
CORKY MESSNER: Like Mowers, the 2020 U.S. Senate nominee might enter the primary to take on Bolduc if nobody else does. Unlike Mowers, Messner would really, really enjoy beating him. Again.
WANTS TO RUN BUT PROBABLY WON’T:
Rep. Frank Guinta: Most Republican insiders believe his campaign support is down to “Friends and Family” — and even that is shaky. “Frank’s enjoying the attention for as long as it lasts until he announces he’s not running — which will likely be next week.”
Phil Taub: His current place in the field is “the other rich guy.” No sign there’s any Taub-mentum, and if there were, his GOP rivals would remind voters of the many donations he’s made to Democrats.
Rich Ashooh: Quickly turning into “Rich Ash-who?”