Politics

Once Unthinkable, Frank Guinta Could Survive His Primary

A year ago, New Hampshire congressman looked dead in the water

Rich Ashooh, left, took the stage at the Seacoast Republican Women's Chilifest in Stratham, N.H., just after primary opponent, Rep. Frank Guinta, second from right, had finished speaking. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

SCAMMAN FARM, STRATHAM, N.H. — Rep. Frank C. Guinta had barely finished speaking when the long-legged Rich Ashooh bounded onstage Saturday to address the party faithful at the 17th annual Seacoast Republican Women's Chilifest. 

"Tuesday is an important day," Ashooh said, standing on bales of hay, while in the garage behind him, 40 crocks of chili simmered. "But Wednesday is an even more important day," he said, a nod to the start of the general election campaign in the state's infamously swingy 1st District.

All eyes in the Granite State are still on the primary — the last competitive congressional GOP primary in the country. In a year when five House incumbents have already been knocked off in primaries — at least two because of scandal — Republicans are watching to see, can Guinta survive?

A year ago, the congressman looked dead in the water. The Federal Election Commission found that by accepting a $355,000 loan from an account owned by his parents for his first campaign for Congress, Guinta had violated campaign finance laws. GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte called on him to resign and his fundraising dried up.

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But since this summer, it's looked increasingly likely that Guinta could squeak by. If he does, he'll be running against former Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter for the fourth straight time. Guinta first won the seat over Shea-Porter in 2010, lost it in 2012 and won it back in 2014. 

"A year and a half ago, it was rough. It was a lot more negative press than I ever expected," Guinta said Saturday. "Now all of a sudden people are predicting I’m going to win on Tuesday." 

Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, praised Guinta at a briefing in Washington last week for explaining his legal issues to his constituents. And he's continued to pick up donations from fellow members in the last few weeks.

Former state Rep. David Scott, right, calls Guinta's FEC woes "a tempest in a teapot." (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Former state Rep. David Scott, right, calls Guinta's FEC woes "a tempest in a teapot." (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Guinta sensed the tide beginning to turn in January after he paid back the loan and paid a $15,000 fine to the FEC.

"Every month, it just started to get better," Guinta said, especially when his constituents took notice of his work on the opioid crisis.

He co-chairs the Bipartisan Task Force to Combat the Heroin Epidemic with 2nd District Democrat Ann McLane Kuster, whom he name-dropped twice during his televised debate with Ashooh last Friday.

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Guinta had been saying since January he'd run for re-election, but when he finally filed in June, people realized he was serious. Being home over the summer and skipping the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Guinta said, allowed him to knock on more doors. 

"They see how aggressive I’ve been, and how upbeat I’ve been, and how strong of a campaign we’ve run, and I think people started to be reminded of Guinta, who’s always been the underdog," he said.

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Ashooh's year?

Scamman Farm is where GOP leaders hope to be made. Mitt Romney announced his 2012 presidential campaign here, and both the former Bush presidents have made appearances here.

The hosts, former state House Speaker Doug Scamman and his wife, former state Rep. Stella Scamman, are institutions in Granite State politics. They are backing Ashooh, with Stella proudly sporting one of his bright yellow campaign stickers at Saturday's event. 

Ashooh finished third to Guinta in the 2010 Republican primary, but that was five years before the FEC fined the congressman. Many critics are upset that Guinta denied being under investigation. Guinta insists the money in his family account was his, too.

Ashooh has made Guinta's character a central focus of his campaign. His television ad quotes a New Hampshire Union Leader editorial that called Guinta a "damned liar."

Ashooh is seen by some 1st District Republicans as a better bet to beat Democrat Carol Shea-Porter in November. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Ashooh is seen by some 1st District Republicans as a better bet to beat Democrat Carol Shea-Porter in November. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

For Stella Scamman, Ashooh's appeal is less about getting rid of a scandalized lawmaker, whom she's known for years, and more about electing a Republican with a business background. Ashooh is a former BAE Systems executive.

"We need someone who can beat Carol Shea-Porter once and for all," Scamman said.

[Carol Shea-Porter Files to Run Again in New Hampshire]

Despite that business background, Ashooh has disappointed some Republicans who had high hopes for his campaign.

For starters, he hasn't raised the money to wow Washington. 

"I’ve outraised both my opponents," Ashooh said. "But I am running against an incumbent, no matter how tainted. And that sidelines a lot of money."

Two super PACs are working to boost Ashooh, and both have cut ads attacking Guinta. But neither is flush with cash. Republicans complain that Ashooh didn't go after earned media or compete with Guinta enough when it came to sending mail. Despite the yellow campaign signs designed to attract attention, Ashooh remained largely unknown in the weeks before the primary.

Reality check

Guinta could still very well lose.

His negatives remain high, and allegations of ethical wrongdoing recently resurfaced when he listed the family account on his personal financial disclosure report. Guinta then canceled a long-planned interview with the Union Leader editorial board.

But some Republicans don't see his FEC woes as a big deal.

"The problem he's had is a tempest in a teapot," said former state Rep. David Scott, who likes Guinta for his reliably Republican voting record. Guinta's the rare New Hampshire Republican all in for Donald Trump.

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As the Chilifest came to a close, Guinta interrupted this interview several times to call out to departing guests.

"I'd be remiss if I didn't ask for your vote on Tuesday," he shouted to state Sen. Russell Prescott.

He might not have needed to ask. Prescott hasn't endorsed in the primary because he's running for the state's executive council.

But his money's on Guinta.

"He's got nine lives," Prescott said outside a "barn hall" he hosted for Ayotte in Kingston the day before.

And Guinta, he said, is still on his first life.

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