HENNIKER, NH — While much of the focus and media attention in the 2nd district Congressional campaign has focused on the Democrats, the three Republican candidates showed Saturday that theirs is still a fascinating and peculiar struggle — that has been misunderstood by the national media.
Bob Giuda, Jennifer Horn and Charlie Bass took the stage at New England College only days before the September 14 primary. The interactions between the three showed how vastly different they are as candidates and how Bass has struggled to run against his conservative counterparts. In contrast to the media’s analysis of theirs as an imbalanced contest, none of the three looked like a clear winner.
While Bass will likely prevail due his fundraising abilities, Horn and Giuda’s performances illustrated the degree to which a well-funded conservative could have really changed the race, and the degree to which Bass will struggle against the much more dynamic Democrats in the general election.
Many outlets have written off the race as solidly within Bass’s grasp, and on paper, this seems right. He has the moderate credentials, party backing, experience and fundraising to render his opponents essentially non-factors in the race. But this narrative was not at all obvious at Saturday’s debate, where Bass underperformed and Giuda and Horn looked relatively strong.
From a visual perspective, Bass looked physically terrible in Saturday’s debate. Seeing him in person provided a sharp contrast with the media’s portrayal of an assured victor on Tuesday.
James Pindell noted in his column about last week’s debate that Bass seemed actually ill, and I wrote in July that his campaign has seemed fairly lackluster for months now. On Saturday, he closed his eyes while his opponents spoke, took breaths and pauses at random times, and displayed odd mannerisms that weren’t on display earlier this summer.
But even on a policy level, he largely failed to demonstrate the degree to which he is leading this race. Bass and Horn got into a heated discussion about the value of experience in a candidate, and it wasn’t clear that anyone won. For a man who served 12 years in Congress, not being able to articulate the value of experience against a woman who has never held office is concerning.
But Bass’s problem is that he’s essentially running as someone he is not. A moderate, mainstream Republican, he is trying to embrace the Tea Party phenomenon and win his base while also defending a moderate voting record and appealing to independents. It’s too much for any one person to accomplish, and he seems frusterated by the inconsistencies as a result.
Bass will likely do much better running against a liberal Democrat in the general election, where he can tout his widespread political appeal with less fear of alienating hardcore Republicans. But until Tuesday, he has to deal with this conundrum.
One of the panelists asked him if he’s concerned that party leaders don’t find him conservative enough, and he became visibly agitated at the suggestion, hitting the podium in response. “No one can beat my record,” he said, seeming distressed at the suggestion.
In contrast, Giuda looked sharp and effective in the exchange. He does well in public speaking because he’s an engaging, dynamic conversationalist. He is confident and clearly enjoys discussing foreign policy. It’s unfortunate that Giuda spend the entire time with an odd smirk on his face. And that his campaign has virtually no money or prospects for a win on Tuesday.
Horn also did well, challenging Bass on his voting record and his lack of idealism in revamping how Congress operates. What she lacks in substance and practical policy solutions, Horn more than compensates with her dyanamic, compassionate brand of conservatism that could resonate with more hardline GOP voters.
But as one panelist noted, Horn has failed to gather endorsements from national conservatives like Sarah Palin — likely a sore point for the self-proclaimed mama grizzly in this race. She has also struggled to raise enough money to really seriously compete with Bass.
And financing is perhaps the most important aspect of this race, and the reason Bass will win next week, despite a lackluster campaign. “We cannot nominate a candidate that is flat-broke the day after the election,” he said in one of the sharper moments of the debate, hitting his opponents where it counts.
Horn has more than $200,000 in debt from her failed 2008 campaign, and Giuda has loaned his team more than $100,000 of his own money. Neither are prepared to take on the Democrats, who have far out-raised the Republicans in this race. Ann McLane Kuster, the likely nominee at this point, has raised more than $1 million.
What would Horn or Giuda’s campaigns looked like had they raised the money to compete with Bass? The contest is eerily reminsicent of Ovide LaMontagne‘s Senate bid, which has gained momentum from conservative endorsements this week despite his inability to keep up with frontrunner Kelly Ayotte in fundraising.
It seems that Charlie Bass could have really struggled this year — but Horn and Giuda weren’t the candidates to make it happen.