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Andrew Cline: For many in the GOP, it’s Havenstein in the nick of time

April 02. 2014 10:46PM

New Hampshire Republicans have been searching for a strong candidate for governor since last summer. With former BAE Systems CEO Walter Havenstein’s entrance into the race on Wednesday, high-ranking Republicans believe they finally have one. Havenstein’s announcement ends what might be called an eight-month Series of Unfortunate Events for the state GOP when it comes to the governor’s race.

Though Gov. Maggie Hassan has been surprisingly ineffective as both a party leader and government executive, she has been politically cautious and scandal-free. Her approval ratings are north of 50 percent, but Republicans thought they could make a solid case for change based largely on budget and management issues in what looks like a Republican wave year — if only they had a strong candidate.

Though the search goes back to at least early last summer, by the new year it remained fruitless. On Jan. 29, Andrew Hemingway of Bristol tried to fill the void. Readers unfamiliar with Hemingway’s low-profile candidacy for governor — or even that there is a race for governor this year — can be forgiven. Hemingway’s candidacy has generated little news in two months. He has been focused on presenting a positive agenda instead of attacking the incumbent, and thus Gov. Maggie Hassan has ignored him. This year, the state Democratic Party has issued more news releases attacking Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie than Republican New Hampshire gubernatorial candidate Andrew Hemingway. (The single news release on Hemingway came on Jan. 31.) The race was shaping up to be an epic blowout. Were it a basketball game, Hemingway would be in real danger of becoming posterized.

Republicans worried about a trouncing breathed a sigh of relief on Wednesday when they finally got a “yes” from Havenstein. New Hampshire Democrats consider Havenstein a serious candidate, if not a big threat. They have been attacking him for weeks on Twitter and already have issued two news releases targeting him.

In Republican establishment circles, Havenstein is considered a strong, if unknown, candidate. Party insiders have been courting him for months. The fear that an unchallenged Hassan would negatively affect down-ballot races and free up Democratic money to be spent elsewhere was widespread among the New Hampshire GOP. But Hemingway is not to blame for that fear, which goes back nearly a year.

Starting last summer, Republicans lost one top gubernatorial candidate after another. In July, Executive Councilor Chris Sununu announced that he would not run for governor, citing family and business commitments. That left state Sen. Jeb Bradley of Wolfeboro, a former member of Congress, and Chuck Morse, now the state Senate President, as the top contenders.

Bradley strongly considered a run but decided against it for personal reasons. “My family situation became very difficult in the summer time frame,” Bradley told me. “My mother is getting older, weaker, and I’m the only sibling that lives near her. A lot of question marks came up. And my sister was diagnosed for a second time with ovarian cancer.”

Morse, who was Senate Finance Committee Chairman last year, also strongly considered running. But in August Senate President Peter Bragdon resigned his leadership position after agreeing to run the Local Government Center. Morse quickly decided to go for Senate President instead of governor. In the Senate, he could set the Republican agenda at the state level and lead the small GOP majority in opposition to Gov. Hassan.

“When I decided to take the presidency, I decided against running for governor,” Morse told me. “That decision was made within 48 hours.”

In November, Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas won reelection with only 53 percent, which discouraged a run for higher office. Former Health and Human Services Secretary John Stephen decided, like Sununu, to pass on this year largely for family and business reasons. Restaurateur Chuck Rolecek was out in December after questions surfaced about whether he resided primarily at his home in New Hampshire or another in South Carolina. (Havenstein, it turns out, will have to answer similar questions regarding a condo in Maryland.)

One by one, the GOP’s starters declined to suit up, leaving the party looking to the bench. “For one reason or another we had a lot of great candidates, but it just wasn’t cooking,” Sununu said.

But with Havenstein, the party brass believe they have found their candidate, and just in time. “Traditionally people like to see a good candidate come out of the woodwork a year in advance, but you don’t need that,” Sununu said. “I think we were all getting a little concerned, but I think there’s still time. It’s going to make for quite a race, I’ll tell you that.”

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader.