After three unsuccessful bids for office, the stars appeared to be aligning for Republican businessman Ovide Lamontagne to win the New Hampshire governorship in 2012.
But that coronation has hit a bump in the road of late. Kevin Smith, the former executive director of the conservative advocacy group Cornerstone, announced his campaign last week and there are whispers that popular Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas will also get in the race.
“I’m not running against anybody, I’m running for the office,” Lamontagne said. He pointed out that he was the only Republican to declare his candidacy before Lynch decided to bow out. “It matters not to me who else might get in the race.”
It might not matter to him, but it could still do him harm. Strategists say Smith will have a hard time building enough name recognition to compete with Lamontagne. But if Gatsas runs, there’s a good chance the vote will split. How remains anyone’s guess.
The most obvious scenario: Smith will pull tea party votes away from Lamontagne, leaving Gatsas as the nominee. Both Lamontagne and Smith have ties to grassroots conservatives in the state. Gatsas, a relative moderate in the field, would pick up all the non-conservative votes — probably enough to win a three-way primary — while his opponents compete over who has the most tea party credibility.
Another, less likely scenario: Gatsas and Lamontagne split support in their shared home base of Manchester, get into an ugly primary battle and give Smith at least a chance at the nomination.
While Gatsas was just reelected with 70 percent of the vote, his coattails were weak in both 2009 and 2011 — a sign, rivals say, of lacking campaign skills.
“Smith could pick up the outside-Manchester vote,” said one New Hampshire Republican strategist. “If he’s able to raise adequate money, he has a shot.”
Lamontagne was a weak fundraiser in 2010. But he benefited from the fight between Ayotte and free-spending businessman Bill Binnie in the late summer — quickly moving from little-known underdog to a near-primary winner. (Ayotte beat him by a little over a hundred votes).
Smith, a former state lawmaker who worked for former Gov. Craig Benson (R), is already drawing contrasts with Lamontagne, arguing that he has experience that the frontrunner lacks.
“People will look at this race on the surface and say, okay, they’ve got the same base. But when they scratch beneath that, they will see what I’m offering and look at our backgrounds,” said Smith. “Ovide has spent most of his time as a trial lawyer.”
A nasty primary didn’t hurt Republicans in the Senate race last year. And for now, most New Hampshire voters (and politicians) are focused on the presidential primary.
And there’s a loooong way to go before voters have their say in the governor’s race. The gubernatorial primary is tentatively scheduled for September 11th; Democrats already have their likely nominee in former state Sen. Maggie Hassan.
Still there are signs that Lamontagne is slightly concerned about the emerging race. After publicly courting presidential candidates, he’s now saying he likely won’t endorse anyone — possibly fearing blowback if he backs a candidate unpopular with his base.
When this race does heat up, we’ll see if this is really his moment.