Gizzi on Politics, June 29, 2009

Good News for New Hampshire GOP  

What was once considered the most reliably Republican state in New England has lately been voting more like Massachusetts and Vermont. Incredible as it would have seemed a decade ago, New Hampshire Democrats now hold the governorship, have majorities in both houses of the state legislature and on the three-member Executive Council. Moreover, both of the Granite State’s U.S. House districts and one U.S. Senate seat are in Democratic hands. With Republican Sen. Judd Gregg calling it quits next year, it has been widely felt that Democrats have the edge in picking up his seat with two-term Rep. Paul Hodes.  

Indeed, in the state that sent to the Senate such conservative Republican stalwarts as Styles Bridges (1936-61), Gordon Humphrey (1978-90), and Bob Smith (1990-2002), the GOP was having difficulty coming up with an A-team candidate.  

But hold on. That may be changing. Last week, State Atty. Gen. Kelly Ayotte sent out some strong hints that she may seek the Republican nomination for Gregg’s seat. A former prosecutor and legal counsel to former GOP Gov. (2002-04) Craig Benson, the 39-year-old Ayotte was appointed as her state’s top law enforcement official by Benson in ’03. The first female attorney general in New Hampshire history is best known for her role in the eponymous Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld New Hampshire’s parental notification law after the U.S. Court of Appeals had struck it down.  

Better known for law enforcement work than politics, Ayotte has nevertheless been mentioned as a candidate for years. In ’02, the Manchester Union Leader named her one of 40 New Hampshire public figures under the age of 40 to watch.  

Also being mentioned for the Republican Senate nomination are attorney and 1996 gubernatorial nominee Ovid LaMontagne, Republican National Committeeman Sean Mahoney and former Rep. (1994-2006) Charles Bass.  

“As you can see, rumors that Republicans here are just going to concede a Senate seat have been greatly exaggerated,” state GOP spokesman Ryan Williams told me.  

Good Days for Healy

In a state where all five U.S. House members are Democrats and Republican Gov. Jodi Rell faces a legislature with nearly two-thirds of its seats in Democratic hands, one wonders why Connecticut State Republican Chairman Chris Healy would even want the post to which he was unanimously re-elected last week. But, as his mother once told me, Healy is used to taking on tough political missions. Raised in New York, he once got a black eye for wearing a Goldwater-for-President button to school and, in 1965, the young Healy handed out leaflets at subways boosting Conservative Party nominee William F. Buckley, Jr. for mayor.  
But Healy has reason to be happy these days. Five-term Sen. Christopher Dodd, enmeshed in questions about the “sweetheart deal” on his mortgage and the healthcare debate in which he is a player as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, is increasingly considered the nation’s most vulnerable Democratic senator facing the voters next year. Polls show Dodd now trailing or locked in a tight race with the three Republican Senate hopefuls: former Rep. (2000-06) Rob Simmons, State Sen. Sam Caliguiri, and former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Tom Foley.  

Two weeks ago, Healy presided over the annual Prescott Bush Awards Dinner, the Nutmeg State GOP’s biggest event, which is named for the Connecticut Republican senator from 1952-62 whose son and grandson were Presidents. This Bush dinner drew more than 800 people, among them former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, who came to the event in Stamford from nearby Westchester County, N.Y. The dinner raised more than $300,000 — “the best dinner in terms of turnout and money since ’03, when our speaker was [then-Florida Gov.] Jeb Bush,” State GOP Finance Director Liz Stafford told me.  

The speaker at the Bush dinner was Newt Gingrich, who electrified the crowd by urging Republicans in the Obama era to follow the example of the Solidarity movement in Poland and speak the truth, avoid political correctness, and demonstrate conviction.  

“There were chants of ‘Newt, Newt!’ and, yes, many of the guests urged him to run for President in 2012,” Healy told me.  

Blunt Talk is Good

Ever since four-term GOP Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond announced he will not run again in 2010, the speculation in Missouri has been that Secretary of State Robin Carnahan would wrap up the Democratic nomination and that Republicans would go through a grueling primary before facing an uphill battle to retain Bond’s seat.  

But in politics things have a way of turning out differently from what was at first expected. True, Carnahan, heir to one of the Show-Me State’s most durable names (her father was a governor and mother was a senator, and brother Russ is a U.S. House member), is the near-certain Democratic nominee.  

On the Republican side, seven-term Rep. Roy Blunt seems well on his way to securing the Senate nomination. Last week, Washington University Law Prof. Tom Schweich announced he wouldn’t run for the Senate after all. Republican Schweich had been considered formidable in part because his close association with one of the Missouri’s best-loved Republicans — moderate former Sen. (1976-94) John Danforth. Schweich, who had been Danforth’s top aide when he was ambassador to the United Nations, is now expected to run for state auditor next year.  

Former State Treasurer Sarah Steelman had also been considered a strong prospect for the Republican Senate nomination. Two years ago, the wife of former State House GOP Leader David Steelman, narrowly lost the GOP primary for governor. She has since retained a strong following because of her image as a reformer — backing transparency in government and an end to wasteful spending.  

But Steelman has yet to formalize her exploratory committee for a Senate race and, as of last week, there were mounting rumors that she was actually testing the waters for running in the Republican primary for Blunt’s 7th District House seat. 

Did Ensign Fall-out Spill Over on Vitter?

Since the sensational personal revelation about Sen. John Ensign (R.-Nev.) last week, several pundits have wondered if this somehow has created ripples that will strike the 2010 re-election bid of another Republican senator — David Vitter of Louisiana — who admitted in 2007 that he had once been a client of the “D.C. Madam” and her call-girl service.  

Incredibly to some, Vitter (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 93%) has so far managed to avoid a primary challenge. But last week, Democratic Rep. Charles Melancon issued a statement that he has been encouraged to run and “will be making an announcement in coming weeks.”  

Republicans appeared to welcome the scenario of a Senate candidacy by Melancon (lifetime ACU rating: 46%). As National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Brian Walsh put it, “you’d have a candidate who supports card-check, voted for the stimulus boondoggle, and voted against tax relief while voting for the AIG bonuses.” (Vitter took opposite stands on all those issues.)

Were Melancon to run, Pelican State Republicans feel they would have an excellent chance of picking up his 3rd District (South Central Louisiana) House seat. State Rep. Nickie Monica has said he is thinking about the race, while there is speculation that former state House Speaker Hunt Downer, an assistant adjutant general in the Louisiana National Guard, is also eyeing a bid.