Posted at 5 a.m. today
One of the most vulnerable members of the House is lurking in the shadows outside of New Hampshire’s presidential spotlight.
Attention on the Republican presidential candidates in the Granite State’s first in the nation primary on Tuesday would normally be a golden opportunity for a down-ballot incumbent like GOP Rep. Frank Guinta, who has $12,000 in his campaign account, to hitch a ride, boost his visibility and secure some much-needed donations.
Then again, Guinta already has name recognition. For the Manchester congressman, that’s a “double-edged sword,” said New Hampshire GOP consultant Patrick Hynes, an adviser to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign.
Guinta, now in his second nonconsecutive term, is well-known in his home state for breaking campaign finance rules when he accepted a $355,000 contribution from his parents through the “Guinta Family Fund” during his 2010 campaign.
The Federal Election Commission fined him $15,000 in May, which he paid soon after. Guinta has maintained he did nothing wrong, and after repaying the $355,000 loan at the end of January, he reaffirmed he is running for re-election.
New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who’s also vulnerable in 2016, suggested last spring Guinta should resign. A May New Hampshire Union Leader editorial blasted him in just six words: “Frank Guinta is a damned liar.”
“My understanding is that none of them have wanted to reach out to him,” Hynes said of the presidential candidates’ interaction with Guinta. “He’s just too toxic.”
But Washington D.C., hasn’t abandoned him. Just last week, the GOP Steering Committee put Guinta on the Budget Committee.
“Speaker Ryan is supporting all of our House incumbents for re-election, including Congressman Guinta. The speaker and House Republicans are developing a bold agenda, and we need as strong of a majority as possible to be successful,” a spokesman for Team Ryan, the speaker’s political organization, said in a statement on Feb. 5. In late 2015, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., hosted a fundraiser for Guinta in Washington, D.C.
But what some of the D.C. establishment may see as a “reporting snafu,” Hynes said, is a much bigger deal in the eyes of Granite State voters. In an October WMUR Granite State Poll, half of his constituents wanted him to resign.
“I don’t think they realize the degree to which he not only denied he had done anything wrong but repeatedly changed his story and chastised anyone who questioned him about it,” Hynes said of the D.C. perspective. “He dug himself a very big trench. And that’s why people are so frustrated with him in the Granite State.”
But even if Guinta isn’t sought after for stump speech introductions the way, say, Sen. Chuck Grassley was in Iowa, doesn’t mean he hasn’t tapped into the presidential presence in his backyard. Presidential town halls, for example, have drawn national attention to local issues, like the heroin epidemic, that Guinta, founder of a bipartisan task force in the House, has been out-front on. Earlier this month he called on the presidential candidates to present their plans for combatting the crisis in subsequent debates.
And he’s kept up an active schedule meeting with constituents. His vote against the omnibus spending bill and the budget could enhance his credibility among conservatives and highlight what one local operative called “his independent streak.”
But some Granite State Republicans remain unconvinced he’ll survive a primary, let alone a general election. “The idea that he’s going to be returning to Congress next year is a complete farce,” said former state GOP chairman Fergus Cullen, who’s been one of the earliest and strongest critics of Guinta.
He already faces at least three primary challengers, two of whom have previously run against him. University of New Hampshire professor Dean Dan Innis finished with 41 percent of the vote to Guinta’s 49 percent in the 2014 GOP primary. Innis took in $91,000 in the last quarter of 2015 to Guinta’s $71,000. Although Guinta ended the period with more money in the bank, his $367,000 war chest at the end of December didn’t reflect the loan repayment. Innis had $130,000 in the bank.
Rich Ashooh, an interim executive director at the UNH School of Law, has also been weighing a Guinta primary challenge. He finished third in the 2010 GOP primary, winning 28 percent to Guinta’s 32 percent. A former executive at BAE systems, in the 1980s and early 90s, he worked for former New Hampshire GOP Sen. Warren Rudman. State Rep. Pam Tucker has also been exploring a primary challenge to Guinta.
If he survives the primary, Guinta faces a potential rematch with Democratic former Rep. Carol Shea-Porter in a district that President Barack Obama narrowly carried twice.
“The concern for the establishment, with at least a four-way primary, is you may end up in a situation where Guinta wins,” Hynes said.
Innis said he’s been to events with all of the GOP presidential candidates in the state, but so far, his campaigning has been more “behind the scenes.” On Tuesday, he’ll work at his local polling location in Portsmouth.
After Tuesday, though, “the dynamic will change,” Innis added. Once the presidential candidates leave, congressional candidates will have plenty of time to fight their own battles before their Sept. 13 primary.
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