CONCORD, N.H. — The seven-way Republican U.S. Senate primary came down to conservative attorney Ovide Lamontagne and former Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, with the race too close to call as of 4 am Wednesday.
After lagging in early returns, Ayotte moved ahead of Lamontagne with a lead of roughly 1,000 votes, with results tallied from 85 percent of precincts. Ayotte was backed by establishment Republicans and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin; Lamontagne, a former chairman of the state Board of Education, campaigned with the support of tea party activists.
It was a big night for the tea party. Conservative Christine O’Donnell pulled off a stunning upset over nine-term Rep. Mike Castle in the Republican Senate primary in Delaware, propelled by tea party support. After a primary season shaped by economic pain and exasperated voters, the grass-roots, anti-establishment movement can claim wins in at least seven GOP Senate races, a handful of Republican gubernatorial contests and dozens of House primary campaigns, and it influenced many others.
In New Hampshire, Lamontagne spokesman Jim Merrill said at about 2 a.m. that Lamontagne was calling it a night, but Ayotte campaign manager Brooks Kochvar said she was still watching results and was encouraged.
Ayotte held a slight lead — close enough for Lamontagne to legally request a recount if the margin held. Ayotte had 46,331 votes, or 38 percent, while Lamontagne had 45,352, or 37 percent.
Multimillionaire businessman Bill Binnie, who spent more than $5 million out of his own pocket pushing his jobs agenda, received 16,960 votes, or 14 percent, and conceded along with millionaire businessman Jim Bender, who got 10,507 votes, or 9 percent.
That left the two more conservative candidates to count votes into the next morning. Three others also were in the race but did not challenge for the nomination.
Lamontagne, who painted himself as the only true conservative in the race, held a slight advantage in early returns over Ayotte. But as the night wore on, Ayotte took a slight lead.
The winner hopes to win retiring GOP Sen. Judd Gregg’s seat and face Democratic nominee Paul Hodes, who was unopposed.
Hodes said Tuesday night the Republican agenda is “extreme, radical and right wing.” He said Republicans would take the country backward into the hole from which the nation is struggling to dig out.
“I’m running for the people of New Hampshire. I don’t have to run against anyone,” Hodes said.
Ayotte, 42, of Nashua, won the blessing from Palin, who calls her a “Granite Grizzly.” Ayotte spent more than $2 million on her anti-Democrat, anti-federal spending campaign.
Lamontagne closed fast in the final days of the race despite spending only $400,000. Lamontagne, 52, counted on conservative groups, not money, to win the nomination.
“It’s not how much money you have, it’s the message,” Lamontagne said Tuesday night.
In a fight over who is the most conservative, Ayotte won Palin’s endorsement in July over Lamontagne, who courted tea party activists. Palin, the former vice presidential nominee, recorded telephone messages to voters that started Sunday praising Ayotte as “the true conservative” — a mantle Lamontagne had tried to claim as his throughout his campaign.
Lamontagne’s two previous election bids were unsuccessful. His late surge was similar to his victory over former U.S. Rep. Bill Zeliff for the 1996 GOP gubernatorial nomination, but Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen beat him to capture the first of her three two-year terms as governor. Lamontagne failed in a GOP primary bid in 1992 to unseat Zeliff in the 1st District.
Brad Marshall, a 67-year-old Republican who owns Marshall Firearms in Boscawen, said he voted for Lamontagne because he remembers when he was chairman of the state Board of Education.
“I talked to him on a number of occasions. I knew what he was all about,” he said.
Jim Richardson, 61, who owns a farm in Boscawen, said he went with his conscience in voting for Lamontagne.
“I think he’s a stronger conservative than any of them,” he said.
Ayotte supporters cited familiarity with her from her time as attorney general.
“I feel like Kelly’s not a politician,” said Kate Benway, 31, of Concord, who said she trusted her.
Binnie, 52, of Rye, put his fortune behind his effort to be the voters’ choice as most experienced in creating jobs. He spent more than $6 million — more than $5 million out of his own pocket. As his support appeared to ebb late in the race, Binnie reached out to social moderates by trumpeting his support for abortion rights in a losing effort.
Bender, 57, of Hollis, added to the spending spree with nearly $1 million, most of it his money.
All four had pledged to cut spending, pare the deficit, cut taxes, secure the U.S.-Mexico border and repeal health care reforms they say amount to a government takeover.
The Republicans spent more than $9.5 million for the chance to face Hodes, 59, of Concord. Despite being unopposed, Hodes spent $2.5 million to line up support to try to win the seat. The spending totals will rise after final primary campaign finance reports are filed with the Federal Elections Commission.
Chris Cornog, 55, of Canterbury, who owns a small marketing communications firm, said he voted for Hodes because he thinks “he’s really smart.” Cornog said he also believes Hodes will help push President Barack Obama’s agenda, which he supports.
Regardless of party, candidates have focused on voters’ worries about the economy and their jobs with their messages. But Republicans are pinning their hopes in November on voters’ willingness to blame Democrats for the nation’s ills.
Democrats are trying to distance themselves from Washington by painting themselves as independent New Hampshire thinkers. Hodes, for example, advertises he bucked his party by voting against the Wall Street bailout.