Voter anger fuels New Hampshire congressional candidates

Reinventing himself, former Rep. Charlie Bass calls himself an average citizen who
Reinventing himself, former Rep. Charlie Bass calls himself an average citizen who "is honestly and truthfully appalled." (Jim Cole/associated Press)
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By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 26, 2010

NEWPORT, N.H. -- Bounced out of Congress in the 2006 Democratic sweep, former congressman Charlie Bass is trying to win back his narrowly divided district in November.

He's still a bellwether candidate. But Charlie Bass has changed.

The old version, the one who didn't believe he would lose until the day it happened, was a traditional New England Republican, moderate in substance and style.

The new Charlie Bass is full of fight. He accuses President Obama of "coddling terrorists" and advancing "extremist" policies, like the Wall Street overhaul bill now facing a Republican filibuster threat on the Senate floor. Bass said recently of "tea party" activists: "God bless every single one of them. Their agenda is exactly the same as mine."

But for a career politician who served on Capitol Hill for a dozen years, addressing serious policy questions with people who profess to hold zero faith in the federal government can get awkward. Bass's challenge is to recraft his image in a way that will defang his conservative Republican opponents yet stay true enough to his centrist self to win back the crucial independent voters who defected to his Democratic opponent in 2006.

New Hampshire's vulnerability to political waves was again demonstrated four years ago, when Bass and the state's other GOP congressman, Rep. Jeb Bradley, lost House races to Democratic newcomers. In 2008, Republican Sen. John E. Sununu was defeated by Democrat Jeanne Shaheen and the Granite State backed Obama over Sen. John McCain for president.

This year, Republicans are targeting both House districts and an open Senate seat created by the retirement of Sen. Judd Gregg (R), part of a national effort to wrest back control of Congress. Recent polls showing disillusionment with Democrats have prompted a swarm of candidates -- including a firefighter, a radio host, a pilot and a multimillionaire -- to enter GOP primaries, all seeking to ride an intense anger directed at "Washington."

Democratic candidates are keeping close tabs on Bass and other GOP candidates, hoping here, as elsewhere, that general-election voters will reject the fiery anti-government rhetoric of Republican primary battles.

Bass's two GOP opponents are more biting than he is. Former talk-radio host Jennifer Horn greeted a Republican dinner on Thursday with the line "Friends, we have a Congress that is crushing the American dream." Robert Giuda, a former state representative and now a United Airlines Boeing 777 captain, told the same crowd of small-town party activists, "This president and this Congress are the enemy of a free republic."

Bass is content to try to reposition himself as a political outsider, an average citizen who "is honestly and truthfully appalled."

Like Bass, the two leading GOP Senate candidates have résumés with centrist streak, at least compared with the other three Republicans on the ballot. Kelly Ayotte, the front-runner according to recent polls, served as state attorney general under Republican and Democratic governors. Plastics entrepreneur Bill Binnie favors a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, likes portions of the new health-care law and has a record of contributing to Democratic candidates.

Wall Street bailout

For Democrats, the financial overhaul debate comes as a welcome diversion from the highly unpopular health-care bill. Rep. Paul Hodes, the newcomer who beat Bass and is now running to succeed Gregg, said it provides "absolutely the clearest example" of his contention that Republicans protect powerful special interests at the expense of the middle class. "If there's one thing that I think the sentiments of voters are based on, it's the sense that Wall Street ran wild, Wall Street banks got bailed out, but the Main Street American middle class didn't," Hodes said.

Katrina Swett, seeking to replace Hodes in the House, conceded that Democrats are the primary target of voter anger but predicted that by November, if the economy continues to improve, "we will see a resurgence of the pragmatic independent voter."

A survey released April 18 by the Pew Research Center found that while trust in government has fallen to near-historic lows, 61 percent of respondents endorse federal efforts "to more strictly regulate the way major financial companies do business."

The political pressure on GOP candidates was apparent Friday, when Ayotte issued her first public statement on the Wall Street bill hours after a public call from Hodes to "end her silence." She described the legislation "a work in progress" and raised concerns that it "continues Washington's bailout mentality."

Republicans have held Bass's former seat for 92 of the past 100 years, but voters picked Hodes, a liberal lawyer and former musician, in 2006. The upset moved the district decisively into the purple column.

New Hampshire's GOP leaders point to several indicators that they believe bode well for the party's chances in November. Republican candidates have won seven of eight state special elections in the past year -- compared to the run-up to 2006, when the GOP lost seven of eight. Also, crowded GOP primaries often translate into general-election success in New Hampshire: Gregg, former Sen. Warren Rudman and former Gov. Stephen Merrill all defeated large primary fields before winning their general elections.

"Voters like it when we have a healthy exchange of ideas," said Wayne McDonald, vice chairman of the New Hampshire Republican State Committee.

Bass's shift

Bass has kept a low profile in recent years while working for an alternative-energy firm, but he announced his return to politics in February with rabble-rousing comments that portrayed Obama and congressional Democrats as reckless spenders on a quest to expand government into every corner of American life. He has attended local tea party events but has remained a board member of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a centrist group that advocates "thoughtful leadership" and a "pragmatic approach" to solving the nation's problems.

Some veteran observers are doing a double take. "Our Charlie Bass, a tea partier? You gotta be kidding," wrote the Concord Monitor editorial board after the fiery announcement speech. "It can't be easy for Bass to move to the right of his primary opponents . . . both have talked a more conservative game. But that appears to be his plan. If he succeeds, it will take such a long way back to the middle that he'd better pack a lunch."

The new Charlie Bass is getting a second look from voters like Doris McCollester, who owns two beauty salons in Keene. She doesn't want Congress to pass any type of Wall Street overhaul legislation. "I think government should stay out of it," said McCollester, who attended a GOP women's potluck dinner on Wednesday to hear Binnie speak.

Other voters take a more nuanced view of Wall Street regulation and expect the same from Republican candidates. Eric Stanley, a Keene businessman whose company works with credit unions, said he "agrees in general" with the Senate bill. "I just want Republicans to read it so they understand the implications and don't do harm to the small banks," he said.

Bass recognizes that he is walking a fine line. In his Sullivan County speech, the former congressman stuck to warning about the deficit and reminding an audience, which included both of his primary opponents, "We need to nominate a candidate that can win in November."

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