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Monday, November 5, 2012

Analysis: For Lamontagne, falling short at polls Tuesday could mean another opportunity lost

CONCORD – With a race for governor this close, Democrat Maggie Hassan and Republican Ovide Lamontagne both may have to deal Wednesday, the day after Election Day, with what could have been.

Soon, voters will make fools out of the polls and pundits if not in this race, perhaps others near the top of the ballot. But interviews with Republican political operatives not affiliated with the Lamontagne campaign reveal growing frustration that in this signature contest, the selection could be another opportunity lost. ...

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CONCORD – With a race for governor this close, Democrat Maggie Hassan and Republican Ovide Lamontagne both may have to deal Wednesday, the day after Election Day, with what could have been.

Soon, voters will make fools out of the polls and pundits if not in this race, perhaps others near the top of the ballot. But interviews with Republican political operatives not affiliated with the Lamontagne campaign reveal growing frustration that in this signature contest, the selection could be another opportunity lost.

If she loses, Hassan will clearly have less to regret than Lamontagne will if he does.

The 2012 campaign began with Lamontagne having all the advantages. Republicans were coming off a tsunami election in 2010 that gave them all the levers of power.

At long last for partisans, the popular Gov. John Lynch was stepping down and the moderate incumbent, while successful, had done little to build up an heir apparent.

For the first time in his star-crossed political career, Lamontagne had the GOP establishment that allowed him to easily dust off a capable but clearly out-matched primary opponent, Kevin Smith.

Meanwhile, Democrat Hassan was severely tested in her primary from a former colleague in the state Senate, Jackie Cilley, who peeled away much of Hassan’s ideologically liberal base along with several major unions that were always in her corner.

Through three previous campaigns for office, Lamontagne had proven himself capable of attracting large numbers of socially conservative activists. But he was never a good fundraiser, badly outspent in all three losing campaigns: for Congress in 1994, governor in 1996 and U.S. Senate in 2010.

This time, however, the early money came pouring in and Lamontagne was able to raise nearly three times more than he ever had before.

Despite the profile as a socially conservative activist, Lamontagne also enjoys a personal friendship with Lynch as the two go back more than two decades as the ex-legal counsel and board trustee chairman for Catholic Medical Center in Manchester.

While Lynch strongly endorsed Hassan in this race, the four-term Democrat has not carried any of Hassan’s venomous rhetoric against Lamontagne as a “radical” or “extreme” figure in New Hampshire politics.

With the economy sluggishly recovering, it was reasonable to expect voters would be in the mood to turn the page on Democratic control of the corner office and elect a Republican for only the second time in the past nine elections.

“On so many levels, this began clearly as a race for Ovide to lose,” said Dick Bennett, president of the American Research Group.

“He’s never been such a prohibitive favorite at the outset, but you can’t win just standing in place and expecting the race to come to you, and that’s how I feel this campaign has gone for him.”

So if it goes south for Lamontagne on Tuesday, what went so horribly wrong?

Given his past campaigns and sometimes stridently conservative rhetoric, Lamontagne was going to have to recast himself as someone who could appeal to independent voters, especially on social issues.

And this was Lamontagne’s fatal flaw, even according to those most devoted to him.

“I love Ovide as a person and as a big player in Republican politics, but the fact is you have got to pivot from nomination to general election and plainly he failed to effectively do that,” said former Republican National Committeeman Michael Dennehy.

On issue after issue, Lamontagne’s past statements in this campaign had caught up with him.

Lamontagne decided last winter to embrace the idea of having the federal government block grant to the states Medicare, the insurance program for senior citizens.

In early debates, Lamontagne defended that position and insisted the state could more effectively manage both Medicare and Medicaid.

Those statements became a top talking point for Hassan on the campaign trail and a frequent punch line in attack ads and mailers from the Democratic Governors Association and Hassan-supportive labor unions.

With a month before the election, Lamontagne totally swore off the idea and noted only Congress could change Medicare and those benefits for seniors would not be altered if he became governor.

Clearly, however, the damage was already done.

Internal polling for both parties revealed after leading Hassan among senior citizen voters early on, he not only lost the advantage but had fallen well behind.

Then there was Lamontagne’s almost stubborn refusal to let go of his philosophical opposition to state mandates on public schools, in this case the requirement for kindergarten.

Lamontagne said this should be the decision of a local school district but the reality is that all communities have since complied with the mandate.

With less than two weeks to Election Day, Lamontagne again changed course, dropped his support for repealing the law and said at the last debate Thursday night that he actually supported it.

“This might be Ovide’s most desperate attempt to mislead voters yet,” said Hassan campaign spokesman Marc Goldberg.

Another tactical question is why Lamontagne allowed Hassan to seize the mantle of Lynch as someone who would be a moderate, don’t-rock-the-boat chief executive.

GOP consultant Dennehey said there was plenty of ammunition that could have been used to cast Hassan as more liberal than Lynch.

“You’ve got her Maggie Care plan to have the state regulate what hospitals can spend, mandatory seat belts and motorcycle helmets and the constitutional amendment on school funding this year,” Dennehy said.

“All of these underscore the argument Ovide’s camp could have made that a Gov. Hassan would steer the state far left of Gov. Lynch.”

To be sure, if Hassan comes up short, there would be second-guessing as well.

Lamontagne and the GOP Governors Association attacked Hassan for having raised a variety of taxes and fees to cope with the severe recession in 2009.

Hassan failed to mention that’s just what a Republican governor (Judd Gregg) and GOP-dominated Legislature did during the last deep recession that caused the collapse of the housing market, closing of the state’s largest banks and bankruptcy for the state’s largest utility.

Back then, taxes on business profits, rooms and meals, telephone calls and property transfers were all jacked up in a similar way to stem the flow of red ink.

To win Tuesday, Lamontagne could be dependent on GOP nominee Mitt Romney taking New Hampshire, which explains why Lamontagne planned to be at Romney’s last two events here, on Saturday in Newington and Monday night in Manchester.

“You can smell change in the air,” Lamontagne said in a warm-up speech at the Pease International Tradeport on Saturday morning. “Are you ready for new leadership in Washington and how about leadership for a change in Concord?”

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Landrigan on Twitter (@Klandrigan).