N.H. primary shows battle for Tea Party endorsement

The Tea Party dynamic is on full display in New Hampshire, where a veteran officeholder is challenging his Republican primary opponent for the conservative movement’s blessing.

In the GOP primary, former Rep. Charlie Bass (R-N.H.), who lost to Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) in 2006, is running for his old job against broadcaster Jennifer Horn (R). Hodes is running for the Senate and his Democratic-leaning district is seen as a possible pickup for Republicans.

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When he kicked off his campaign last month, Bass proclaimed his affection for the conservative Tea Party. “I love them,” he told reporters. “God bless every single one of them. Their agenda is exactly the same as mine.”

In an interview with The Hill, he said he was glad there was now a vocal constituency concerned primarily about spending. “I’m not asking the Tea Party for an endorsement, I’m endorsing them,” he said.

Bass, who is seen as a centrist Republican, touted his 12-year record of having voted against earmarks and for tax and spending cuts.

“I stand on my record,” he said. “I haven’t changed a single position on fiscal issues.”

Without referring to Horn by name, Bass added, “There is a big difference between experience and leadership in Washington and talk about being a fiscal conservative.”

Conservative spending is a priority with the state’s Tea Party movement.

Horn has been attacking Bass relentlessly for tacitly endorsing congressional spending increases during his six terms in office.

“I really think he’s kidding himself,” Horn said about Bass’s embrace of the Tea Party. “The Tea Party is looking for a return to limited spending, limited government. Charlie stood for and voted for exactly the opposite of that throughout his tenure in Congress.”

Horn has been a regular attendee at Tea Party rallies throughout the state. The Tea Party doesn’t formally endorse but has shown it can influence a race.

And Horn is seen as the underdog in the campaign. She had only $45,000 in the bank at the start of the year, she has a small debt left over from when she ran for the seat in 2008 and much of the recent money coming into her coffers has been a personal investment from her and her husband.

Meanwhile, Bass started the year with more than $160,000 banked. Advertising in this race won’t be cheap — the Boston media market covers much of the district. Moreover, former state Rep. Bob Giuda (R) is also running for the GOP nod and could bleed some of the Tea Party support away from Horn.

Bass has name recognition, said Rich Killion, a New Hampshire-based GOP consultant not affiliated with either campaign. “He’s not the darling of conservatives in New Hampshire, but he’s going to be helped by significantly larger than usual turnout.” Killion noted that the GOP Senate primary candidates were spending millions on voter outreach. Horn, he added, “could be very formidable” if she’s able to raise money.

Under-funded and up against an experienced opponent, Horn has tried to use other avenues to get her message out. She recently wrote a widely circulated op-ed in the Manchester Union Leader, the state’s largest newspaper, decrying “squishy Republicans.”

“We can go back to nominating Republicans who sound like Democrats and hope that by blurring the lines between the two parties, the voters will choose us. Or, we can stand firmly for the principles that make our nation strong and offer the voters a real choice,” she wrote, in what was interpreted as a jab at Bass.

Horn said her battle against Bass is symbolic of a generational shift that’s happening in the party.

“There’s no question that this is kind of a snapshot of what’s happening in the GOP right now,” the former newspaper columnist said. “The folks in the 2nd district are going to have the opportunity to choose between a new face, new voice, new energy — renewed commitment to fiscal conservatism, small government … or choosing somebody who was in Washington for 15 years.”

But some observers said her op-ed and her strong conservative rhetoric will make her a less appealing general-election candidate.

“I read that article. I thought: here’s someone who is really, would have a tough time winning in a moderate, Democratic-leaning congressional seat saying that you don’t want quote-unquote ‘squishy Republicans.’ There’s a lot of them in New Hampshire,” a Republican operative said on background.

“It’s like saying to 20 percent of the electorate — ‘I don’t like you.’ ”

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Bass dismissed the suggestion he’s staked out more conservative positions this cycle.

“Obviously the pundits like to strategize that I’m trying to maneuver myself in one position,” he said. “How can you do that if you voted 15,000 times? That’s my question. The problem is that other people in this sphere here don’t have any voting record. They don’t have anything but promises and talk, and that’s just not going to walk the walk around here.”

On the Democratic side, state Rep. John DeJoie, Democratic activist Ann McLane Kuster and Katrina Swett, who was the Democratic nominee in 2002, are vying for the nod. The primary vote is Sept. 14.


This story was updated at 10:47 a.m. on Wednesday, March 17.