In race for NH governor, Morse and Ayotte aim to repackage familiar political records

Former U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte and former New Hampshire Senate President Chuck Morse are facing off in the 2024 Republican gubernatorial primary.

Former U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte and former New Hampshire Senate President Chuck Morse are facing off in the 2024 Republican gubernatorial primary. Allegra Boverman—NHPR file photos

By JOSH ROGERS

New Hampshire Public Radio

Published: 05-21-2024 10:33 AM

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

Morse looks beyond State House, Salem credentials

At a rally earlier this month at the Atkinson Country Club, Richard Mignault, owner of a Salem plumbing firm, was one of 400 supporters who turned out for Morse. He’s known the former legislative leader for 40 years and was quick to sing his praises.

 “He’s been like a staple,” Mignault said. “He’s just a great guy. He’s not sleazy like some politicians.”

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

In Atkinson, Morse told the crowd he wants voters across New Hampshire to judge him based 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 getting the job done," he said, "I’ll put my conservative results up against anyone."

The last time Morse did that, in his 2022 bid for the U.S. Senate, he lost in the primary to retired U.S. Army Gen. Don Bolduc, who aligned himself with former President Donald Trump and got dubbed a “conspiracy theorist type" by Gov. Chris Sununu.

These days it’s Morse who seems bent on wrapping himself in "Make America Great Again" politics and questioning Ayotte’s willingness to do the same. (Morse backed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in the 2016 presidential primary but has since endorsed him repeatedly.)

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

As he shook hands and posed for pictures with supporters at that event, Morse said he’s learned from his 2022 campaign, a race in which his Salem and State House credentials didn’t translate statewide. He said he’s putting in the work required to beat Ayotte, who’s better known and remains ahead according to all polling to date.

“What we’ve been doing — that I think is different — is we’re going to every city and town that we can get to, and we’re just talking to people," Morse said. "And it’s turned into a movement that’s working."

Ayotte amps up rhetoric on crime, immigration

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

Few Ayotte campaign events are open to reporters these days, but her social media feeds show she, too, is making the rounds statewide. She’s also working to leverage appearances on conservative talk radio, where she tends to hammer a boilerplate message.

“You know what one of my campaign themes is? It’s 'Don’t Mass it up,'" she said in one recent interview on The Howie Carr Show.

Anti-Massachusetts sentiment is nothing new in New Hampshire Republican politics. It’s almost a cliche. But traditionally, the critiques focus on taxes and government overreach. Ayotte’s, however, often focus on crime and immigration.

The law and order emphasis may be natural for Ayotte, who spent five years as New Hampshire Attorney General. But it also appears to be an effort to blunt criticism of her record on immigration in the U.S. Senate, which includes a vote for an immigration reform bill – also strongly backed by Ayotte's mentor, former Arizona Sen. John McCain – that included a path to citizenship for people who entered the country illegally.

These days, that idea amounts to fighting words for most Republicans. And lately, Ayotte emphasizes the same also goes for her.

“We have public safety issues, where unfortunately those sanctuary states not cooperating with law enforcement really create very dangerous situations," Ayotte told WMUR last month. "So, I’m going to be very tough on that issue as governor."

Navigating a fraught personal history with former President Trump, who Ayotte now supports, is another challenge. Back in 2016, Ayotte rescinded her endorsement of Trump after the release of the footage in which he was heard bragging of grabbing women without their consent. At the time, Ayotte said rejecting Trump for those comments was more important to her than winning any election. She soon narrowly lost her Senate seat to Maggie Hassan, and since then has largely stayed out of campaign politics, at least publicly.

But she hasn’t been idle: Ayotte’s made millions by sitting on corporate boards, including at News Corp and BAE Systems. Finding lucrative board work after leaving the Senate is a common trajectory, but less typical is the politician who aims to repack that golden parachute and jump back into elective office.

Participating in a children's well-being forum last week, Ayotte said she sees her private sector dealings as fresh evidence of her readiness to lead New Hampshire.

“We are all in this together," she said. "I look forward to taking those experiences and having the opportunity to serve our state."

To do that, she’ll first need to get through the GOP primary. And on that score, Ayotte and Morse’s long careers in New Hampshire politics both present opportunities – and significant challenges.