Staff hired for possible run at N.H. Senate seat

Former New Hampshire Board of Education Chairman Ovide Lamontagne (R) has hired two prominent Republican strategists as he tests a possible run for retiring Sen. Judd Gregg's (R) seat.

Lamontagne, who surprised Republicans by winning the party's nomination for governor in 1996, has hired Charlie Spies and Jim Merrill, two veteran GOP operatives and veterans of ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's (R) campaign.

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Spies, who was Romney's chief financial officer and a key member of the Republican National Committee's legal counsel office, has been reaching out to reporters on Lamontagne's behalf. Merrill managed Romney's New Hampshire primary campaign, eight years after winning the state for President Bush — the last time a Republican took the state's electoral votes.

Merrill will serve as a senior adviser to Lamontagne as the former education chairman explores a Senate bid.

The new hires are bad news for national Republicans, who had hoped for a clear primary field for former Attorney General Kelly Ayotte (R). Lamontagne, according to New Hampshire sources, will likely run to Ayotte's right, forcing her to play to some part of the conservative base.

Ayotte has already engendered some grumblings among state Republicans who are not sure she is sufficiently conservative. Indeed, the attorney general, appointed and reappointed by Republican and Democratic governors, has always been quiet about her personal political views.

"One of the big questions in the state right now is, where is Kelly Ayotte?" said Mark Sanborn, a GOP strategist in New Hampshire who is not aligned with either candidate. "Is [Lamontagne] going to be to the right of her by a couple of degrees, or is she going to be classified as a [Republican in name only]?"

Lamontagne, Sanborn said, "is very conservative, but likable. He's attractive, as politicians go."

Lamontagne has been exploring the race since April or May, making stops at local Republican events. But the hires signal a new, faster pace of the exploratory phase.

And that hastening comes at the end of a busy week for New Hampshire Republicans. On Monday, Ayotte filed her exploratory committee with the Federal Election Commission. And on Wednesday, Republican businessman Fred Tausch, who had hired other top Granite State strategists to help with a grassroots anti-spending organization, said he would not run.