Nearly double the number of voters are expected to flock to the polls Tuesday compared to the last primary to decide a heated battle for retiring Judd Gregg's U.S. Senate seat and other lower-profile races.
The GOP showdown between former Attorney General Kelly Ayotte and businessman Bill Binnie has captured the attention of voters across the state, and is expected to draw many to the polls, political analysts said.
"I don't think it's going to be a record turnout, but it will be somewhat elevated," said Dean Spiliotis, a political science professor at Dartmouth and Saint Anselm colleges who writes for NHPoliticalCapital.com. "Particularly among Republicans, there is so much interest in that Senate race."
The Republican field also features Ovide Lamontagne and Jim Bender, with Tom Alciere of Hudson, Gerard Beloin of New Boston and Dennis Lamare of Lee rounding out the ballot.
The secretary of state's office announced a projected turnout of 24 percent on Friday, predicting 152,000 people will vote Republican and 70,000 will choose Democratic candidates when they visit the polls Tuesday. That's 100,000 more than the 122,243 people — 71,963 voting Republican and 50,280 choosing Democrats — who turned out for the primary in 2008 when there were few major races, according to Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan.
Aside from the Senate contest, there is only moderate interest in the other top races in the state, analysts said. Those include the 1st and 2nd congressional districts and the governor's race. But it's the months-long fight for the U.S. Senate seat — a race that's become heated because of dueling political ads — that New Hampshire voters won't soon forget.
Ayotte and Binnie have battled from the start, touting themselves as true conservatives with traditional Republican values who are dedicated to trimming excessive federal spending and creating jobs. The two have dipped into their campaign coffers to fund series of costly television ads.
Ayotte's ads have portrayed her as being tough against crime as a former prosecutor and attorney general. Binnie's ads countered that assessment, claiming Ayotte should have put a stop to a Ponzi scheme involving a former mortgage company accused of swindling investors out of millions of dollars. Ayotte has said the scandal was an issue that did not come before her as attorney general.
"I think the money battle hurt Binnie much more than Ayotte because she is well-known," said Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
His colleague at UNH, political science professor Dante Scala, agreed the negative ads may have done more damage than good, with Binnie's attacks proving especially harmful to his own campaign.
"It has hurt both candidates in the eyes of the voters," Scala said.
Ayotte resigned from the attorney general's office last year to run for office. Binnie is a millionaire businessman from Rye who is president of Carlisle Capital Corp. in Portsmouth
Meanwhile, both Lamontagne, a Manchester lawyer and former gubernatorial candidate, and Bender, a Hollis businessman with multiple companies, have remained in the background for most of the race, while Alciere, Beloin and Lamare are expected to have little or no impact on the outcome.
"I would say it's been Kelly Ayotte's race to lose since Day 1," Scala said. "They are all Republicans and they all sound alike on a lot of issues."
But the friction between the Ayotte and Binnie campaigns could lead to a positive outcome for Lamontagne, whose popularity has been rising in recent weeks, Scala said.
"I think Ovide Lamontagne stands a chance because of all the negative backlash between Ayotte and Binnie," he said. "No one is throwing mud at him. If you can be positive while others are being negative, all of a sudden you find some daylight."
Spiliotis agreed Lamontagne could possibly make some headway in the race if his public support continues to swell.
The winner of Tuesday's primary would face Democrat Paul Hodes in the November general election. Hodes, who gave up his congressional seat, has launched attack ads of his own, particularly chastising Ayotte for the Financial Resources Mortgage scandal.
While Spiliotis is not ready to predict who will win November's matchup until after the primary, Scala doesn't expect Hodes to emerge victorious.
"No matter who the Republican nominee is, you have to give him or her the edge as far as Hodes," he said.
Tight congressional races
Voters picking up the ballot Tuesday will also see races in the 1st and 2nd congressional districts.
In the 1st District, Democratic incumbent Carol Shea-Porter is running unopposed, while the GOP race features a field of eight, led by former Manchester Mayor Frank Guinta and three businessmen — Sean Mahoney of Portsmouth, Rick Ashooh of Bedford and Bob Bestani of Newmarket. Lesser-known candidates in the race include Peter Bearse of Danville, Andrew Kohlhofer of Fremont, Richard Charles Parent of Wolfeboro and Kevin Rondeau of Rochester.
"There isn't much of a reason to turn out if you're a Democrat unless you live on the other side of the state," Scala said, noting there are only Republicans in the contested Senate and 1st District congressional races.
The 1st District congressional race could also have an exciting finish on primary night, the analysts said, as it's difficult to predict a winner.
"I find that one the most difficult to figure out," Scala said, noting that Guinta and Mahoney appear to be the front-runners. "That could be the closest race on election night."
Along with the Senate race, "You could have two nail biters," he said.
Spiliotis agreed Guinta and Mahoney have the edge, and said the race's outcome may depend heavily on how much support the former mayor and state representative receives from voters in his hometown of Manchester — New Hampshire's largest city.
In the 2nd Congressional District, there are contested races on both the Republican and Democratic tickets.
On the Republican side, there are five candidates, led by Charlie Bass of Peterborough, who is seeking to regain the seat he lost in 2006 after 12 years. He is the front-runner now and most likely in November, the analysts said.
Scala agrees that the other four Republicans — Robert Guida of Warren, Jennifer Horne of Nashua, Joseph Reilly of Milford and Wesley Sonner Jr. of Mont Vernon — are no match for the experienced Bass.
"Neither Jennifer Horne nor Bob Guida have been able to mount much of a campaign," Scala said. "That should pretty much be an open shot."
On the Democratic side, there is a tense battle between candidates Ann McLane Kuster of Hopkinton and Katrina Swett of Bow — the wife of Ambassador and former Congressman Richard Swett and daughter of the late California Congressman Tom Lantos.
Despite Swett's name recognition, the analysts say Kuster is the front-runner. While Scala said both candidates have been receiving a lot of progressive Democratic support, Kuster has conducted a stronger campaign.
"My sense is Kuster has the upper hand in that race," agreed Spiliotis, who went on to say that she could face some name-recognition issues if she goes up against Bass in November.
Don't forget the governor's race
Last and perhaps the least interesting race in voters' minds is the gubernatorial contests in both parties, as Gov. John Lynch seeks re-election to his fourth term and will face fellow Democrats Timothy Robertson of Keene and Frank Sullivan of Manchester in Tuesday's primary.
They are expected to be no match for the Hopkinton resident, whose popularity ratings remain high, the analysts said.
On the Republican side, former state Health and Human Services Commissioner John Stephen of Manchester is the clear front-runner among a field of four candidates that also includes Frank Emiro Sr. of Londonderry, Jack Kimball Jr. of Dover and Karen Testerman of Franklin.
The analysts said name recognition alone will mean victory for Stephen, who led New Hampshire's largest state agency.
"None of the other three has a chance," Spiliotis said.
Scala agreed. "None of his (opponents) have been able to muster much of a campaign," he said. "I think it's a name-recognition thing more than anything else."
Material from The Associated Press was included in this report.