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Concord Monitor – In the race for NH governor, Morse and Ayotte look to repackage their well-known political records

The Republican primary for governor of New Hampshire features two candidates who have been active in state politics for years: former Senate President Chuck Morse and former U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte. Both have deep roots in the establishment wing of the party, but major differences remain – in political pedigree and in the way they are now working to sell themselves to Republican voters.

Morse looks beyond the State House and Salem references

At a rally earlier this month at Atkinson Country Club, Richard Mignault, owner of a Salem plumbing company, was one of 400 supporters who showed up for Morse. He has known the former chairman of the legislature for 40 years and praised him again and again.

“He was like a staple,” Mignault said. “He's just a great guy. He’s not shabby like some politicians.”

Morse has long been politically popular in his home Senate district, where he built a business after overcoming childhood poverty and served at every level of government, from moderator to elector, state representative and senator, culminating in a decade as president of the New Hampshire Senate.

In Atkinson, Morse told the crowd that he wanted voters across New Hampshire to judge him on the state budgets he crafted, which included tax cuts, school choice initiatives and a ban on almost all abortions after 24 weeks.

“When it comes to doing my job,” he said, “I will stand up to anyone with my conservative results.”

The last time Morse did this, in his run for U.S. Senate in 2022, he lost in the primary to retired U.S. Army Gen. Don Bolduc, who aligned himself with former President Donald Trump and was described by the governor as a “guy “Conspiracy theorist” was called. Chris Sununu.

These days, it's Morse who seems determined to get involved in “Make America Great Again” politics and question Ayotte's willingness to do the same. (Morse endorsed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in the 2016 presidential primary, but has repeatedly endorsed him since then.)

“We can’t trust anyone who is afraid to help put Joe Biden back in his basement and Donald Trump back in the White House,” Morse said to cheers from Atkinson.

As he shook hands with supporters and posed for photos at that event, Morse said he learned from his 2022 campaign, a race in which his credentials in Salem and the State House did not translate statewide. He said he is putting in the work necessary to beat Ayotte, who is better known and is ahead according to all polls so far.

“What we've done – what I think is different – is we're going into every city and town we can and just talking to people,” Morse said. “And it has become a movement that works.”

Ayotte ramps up rhetoric on crime and immigration

Ayotte, meanwhile, is taking a more curated approach to courting Republican primary voters these days. Since she's the only Republican not named Sununu in 20 years to win a statewide election in New Hampshire, she might be able to get away with it.

Few Ayotte campaign events are open to reporters these days, but her social media feeds show she, too, is making the national rounds. She is also working to capitalize on appearances on conservative talk radio, where she tends to push a standard message.

“Do you know what one of my campaign themes is? It's called 'Don't Mass it up,'” she said in a recent interview on The Howie Carr Show.

Anti-Massachusetts sentiment is nothing new in New Hampshire Republican politics. It's almost a cliché. But traditionally criticism has focused on taxes and government overreach. However, Ayotte's focus is often on crime and immigration.

The focus on law and order may come naturally to Ayotte, who served as New Hampshire's attorney general for five years. But it also appears to be an attempt to blunt criticism of her immigration record in the U.S. Senate, which includes a vote for an immigration reform bill – which also has strong support from Ayotte's mentor, former Arizona Sen. John McCain – and one path to this includes citizenship for people who entered the country illegally.

Today, for most Republicans, that idea amounts to a rallying cry. And lately, Ayotte has been stressing that the same goes for her too.

“We have public safety issues, and unfortunately the sanctuary states that don't cooperate with law enforcement are really creating very dangerous situations,” Ayotte told WMUR last month. “So I will be very tough on this issue as governor.”

Another challenge is navigating a difficult personal history with former President Trump, whom Ayotte now supports. In 2016, Ayotte withdrew her support for Trump after footage was released of him bragging about grabbing women without their consent. At the time, Ayotte said that opposing Trump for those comments was more important to her than winning any election. She soon narrowly lost her Senate seat to Maggie Hassan and has largely stayed out of campaign politics since then, at least publicly.

But she hasn't been idle: Ayotte has made millions by sitting on corporate boards, including at News Corp and BAE Systems. Finding a lucrative executive position after leaving the Senate is a common path, but less typical is the politician who wants to pack up the golden parachute and jump back into elective office.

Ayotte attended a forum on child welfare last week and said she viewed her private sector dealings as new evidence of her readiness to lead New Hampshire.

“We’re all in this together,” she said. “I look forward to gaining these experiences and having the opportunity to serve our state.”

To do that, she must first pass the GOP primary. And in that regard, Ayotte and Morse's long careers in New Hampshire politics offer both opportunities — and significant challenges.

Anna Harden

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