By KEVIN LANDRIGAN
CONCORD – With a race for governor this close, Democrat Maggie Hassan and Republican Ovide Lamontagne both may have to deal Wednesday, the day after Election Day, with what could have been.
Soon, voters will make fools out of the polls and pundits if not in this race, perhaps others near the top of the ballot. But interviews with Republican political operatives not affiliated with the Lamontagne campaign reveal growing frustration that in this signature contest, the selection could be another opportunity lost.
If she loses, Hassan will clearly have less to regret than Lamontagne will if he does.
The 2012 campaign began with Lamontagne having all the advantages. Republicans were coming off a tsunami election in 2010 that gave them all the levers of power.
At long last for partisans, the popular Gov. John Lynch was stepping down and the moderate incumbent, while successful, had done little to build up an heir apparent.
For the first time in his star-crossed political career, Lamontagne had the GOP establishment that allowed him to easily dust off a capable but clearly out-matched primary opponent, Kevin Smith.
Meanwhile, Democrat Hassan was severely tested in her primary from a former colleague in the state Senate, Jackie Cilley, who peeled away much of Hassan’s ideologically liberal base along with several major unions that were always in her corner.
Through three previous campaigns for office, Lamontagne had proven himself capable of attracting large numbers of socially conservative activists. But he was never a good fundraiser, badly outspent in all three losing campaigns: for Congress in 1994, governor in 1996 and U.S. Senate in 2010.
This time, however, the early money came pouring in and Lamontagne was able to raise nearly three times more than he ever had before.
Despite the profile as a socially conservative activist, Lamontagne also enjoys a personal friendship with Lynch as the two go back more than two decades as the ex-legal counsel and board trustee chairman for Catholic Medical Center in Manchester.
While Lynch strongly endorsed Hassan in this race, the four-term Democrat has not carried any of Hassan’s venomous rhetoric against Lamontagne as a “radical” or “extreme” figure in New Hampshire politics.
With the economy sluggishly recovering, it was reasonable to expect voters would be in the mood to turn the page on Democratic control of the corner office and elect a Republican for only the second time in the past nine elections.
“On so many levels, this began clearly as a race for Ovide to lose,” said Dick Bennett, president of the American Research Group.
“He’s never been such a prohibitive favorite at the outset, but you can’t win just standing in place and expecting the race to come to you, and that’s how I feel this campaign has gone for him.”