CONCORD — Former House speaker Bill O’Brien on Thursday shrugged off a group of six high-powered Republicans who endorsed his top rival for speaker, current House Republican Leader Gene Chandler, as “mostly people who governed in the last century.”
The big exception is the state’s top Republican, Sen. Kelly Ayotte. Her name appears first on a letter sent to “Representatives-elect” on Wednesday night from the “Gene Chandler for Speaker” committee.
Republican activists told the New Hampshire Journal that the move by Ayotte, while not without political risk, allows her to “insulate herself” from a potential return of controversy to the House under O’Brien as she moves toward a potentially tough reelection bid in 2016, possibly against Gov. Maggie Hassan – and possibly with Hillary Clinton topping the Democratic ticket.
Also on the pro-Chandler list are former Govs. John H. Sununu (who is also a former state GOP chairman) and Steve Merrill, as well as former U.S. Rep. Charlie Bass and former House speakers Donna Sytek and Doug Scamman. View the letter here.
In another key development Thursday, Rep. Laurie Sanborn dropped out of the race for speaker, citing the health concerns of her husband, Sen. Andy Sanborn. Click here for the New Hampshire Journal’s report.
The pro-Chandler letter does not mention O’Brien, but has undertones that reference O’Brien’s controversial two years as speaker, where he was accused – unfairly, his supporters say — of bullying uncooperative state representatives in his own party and while cutting spending substantially, pursuing a “secondary” agenda that Democrats have used as a lightning rod in the elections of 2012 and this year.
Ayotte, supporters say, is now “insulated” from O’Brien and can’t be connected to any controversy that may arise should he become speaker again. But at the same time, she risks alienating O’Brien, his supporters and like-minded Republican activists statewide.
Here’s how one state Democratic leader viewed the Ayotte endorsement of Chandler:
“Kelly is nervous and with good reason. She is running in a favorable year for Democrats, she has gone out of her way to antagonize the conservative activists and she appears more interested in being on a Sunday talk show than rolling up her sleeves and delivering any progress for New Hampshire citizens. Just like (John E.) Sununu in 2008, there is not much she can do to survive 2016.”
While Democrats held three-quarters of the top of the ticket on Election Day, with the reelections of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, Hassan and Rep. Ann Kuster, Republicans took back the House, now having about 240 seats (with recounts pending), flipped the Executive Council to a 3-2 GOP majority and increased their majority in the state Senate from 13-11 to 14-10.
House Republicans are set to caucus next Tuesday, Nov. 18, to make their choice for speaker, now between Chandler and O’Brien.
The Democrats, now in the minority, have elected House Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff as their choice for speaker, meaning he will be the House Democratic Leader. Outgoing speaker Terie Norelli did not seek reelection.
In the letter, the six influential Republicans write, “We know that Gene will respect all Representatives, listen to your views and unite the caucus in taking on the fight against irresponsible spending, big and ineffective government and the anti-jobs policies which hurt Granite State families.”
The letter says that not only will Chandler focus on key issues, but also, “The manner in which the House governs will certainly greatly impact your chances to win re-election and our party’s opportunity to take back the corner office in Concord and hold on to our majorities” in the Senate and on the council.
In a clear but unstated reference to O’Brien, the letter says, “As we have learned in the past, our tone, our message and our actions will be center stage as to whether Republicans will earn the right to continue to govern.”
O’Brien, who defeated Chandler for speaker in 2010, countered with an endorsement from former party chair Jack Kimball, who remains a key leader in the Tea Party/liberty movement in the state. In an email to his own followers, Kimball wrote that although he and O’Brien “had our issues” when Kimball chaired the party, “that does not take away the fact that he was an incredible Speaker of the House at that time and deserves to be elected as Speaker, once again.”
Kimball continued, “It is apparent that the Establishment did not understand the meaning of the results of the race for U.S. Senate and for the governorship, so let’s double down and send an even louder message by supporting Bill O’Brien for Speaker. I ask every Constitutional, small Government loving Republican Rep to vote for Bill O’Brien next week. He will have my full support.”
O’Brien noted that on Wednesday he picked up the endorsement of the Republican Liberty Caucus of New Hampshire, which “represents about 500 activists and I did appreciate the fact that they recognized that I’m the conservative candidate in this race.” And Thursday, he was endorsed by the New Hampshire Republican Volunteer Coalition and the New Hampshire Conservative Majority Project, according to Kevin McHugh, who chairs both groups.
O’Brien told the New Hampshire Journal that the RLCNH represents about 500 activists “and I appreciate the fact that they realize I’m the conservative candidate in this race.”
“The fact that Gene would reach out to moderate leaders tell us who he is, but what is most important is what the approximately 240 Republican members of the House think,” O’Brien said. “They know who is conservative. The question is who will return (the Republican caucus) to its traditional roots of limited government and personal responsibility and who will grow government, but just not as much as the Democrats.
He also said he it was interesting that “a federal office holder is getting involved in a quintessential House legislative matter.” He said he was “encouraged” by his support.
Why Ayotte would want to weigh in on the speaker’s race left some Republicans perplexed Thursday. She faces a potentially tough reelection bid in 2016, especially if, as expected, Hassan decides to challenge her and if, as expected Clinton, who is popular in New Hampshire, tops the Democratic ticket.
A Republican activist who supports Chandler and Ayotte said Ayotte wants to “see a responsible and rational House Majority return to Concord, and there is no question that during Bill O’Brien’s term as speaker, the antics of the House Republican caucus became a liability to the entire party.
“Kelly respects all of those running for Speaker but realizes Bill O’Brien could cause problems for the party if he governs in the same way he did for during his last speakership.”
The activist said the endorsement of Chandler “allows Kelly to plant a flag and if O’Brien does become speaker, she can say she supported a different candidate, which would insulate her from any O’Brien-related issues and O’Brien-related Democratic attacks. Bill was given the keys to the car and drove it into a ditch and lit it on fire. We suffered massive losses in 2012 and people don’t want to see that happen again.”
At the same time, the endorsement could help Chandler win, the activist said.
Former Gov. Sununu, reached by telephone Thursday, declined to comment on O’Brien, saying, “As a former governor I know how important it is to have strong leadership on the legislative side.” That is why, he said, he signed the letter.
Ayotte had no further comment on the letter, according to a spokesman.
But Rep.-elect Pete Silva, a former House Majority Leader under O’Brien, said he was surprised that his fellow Nashuan, Ayotte, would get involved.
He contended Sununu was behind the letter, saying, “He runs the whole thing. Everyone does what he tells them.”
Silva defended O’Brien’s record on passing a voter identification law and cutting the budget.
“I was a Kelly Ayotte supporter, but I’m really pissed off about this,” Silva said. “And I don’t think politically that it’s very smart. And I still think Bill O’Brien is going to win unless Gene goes to the Democrats,” as Scamman did in 2004 when he defeated the late Michael Whalley for speaker after losing in the GOP caucus.
Another O’Brien supporter noted that O’Brien is respected by not only libertarian-leaning Republicans but also by Libertarians who sometimes put up their own candidates as independents in state elections.
This O’Brien backer noted that O’Brien used his influence in the 2014 election to help keep Libertarians out of the top races, noting that in 2012, for instance, the presence of Libertarian candidate Brendan Kelly on the ballot cost Frank Guinta his race against Carol Shea-Porter.
It was noteworthy that Guinta’s name was not on the letter. Nor was one of Ayotte’s top mentors, former Gov. Craig Benson.