Up Against Ayotte, Rubens Primary Campaign An Uphill Fight

Aug 30, 2016

Jim Rubens tries to sway voters before a candidate forum in Derry.
Credit Michael Brindley

Republican Kelly Ayotte is running for re-election, and while most of the headlines are about her race against Gov. Maggie Hassan, Jim Rubens has something to say about that.

The former state Senator is challenging Ayotte’s re-election in next month’s Republican primary, but even his supporters know the odds are against him.

Jim Rubens worked the crowd as people gathered for a candidate forum in Derry in early August. He’s got his forest green U.S. Senate campaign sticker slapped on the chest of his blazer.

But you’d be hard pressed to find another one of those stickers in this room. Dick Burnes of Derry came to the forum wearing his bright blue Ayotte for Senate t-shirt.

But that didn’t stop Rubens.

“Jim Rubens here, candidate for U.S. Senate,” Rubens said, extending his hand out for a handshake.

“You’re running against Kelly, right?,” Burnes replied. “Can’t help you. That’s my girl, right there.”

To say Burnes – a Vietnam veteran – is a die-hard Ayotte supporter would be an understatement.

“There’s two people in Congress that I would take a bullet for without hesitation: one is Senator McCain, the other is Senator Ayotte.”

Such loyalty to Ayotte among Republicans is just one problem for Rubens.

The other? Rubens still hasn’t gotten a chance to debate her.

“Well, good evening. Thank you for coming out. It’s a beautiful summer day and what more important work can you be doing than participating in our electoral process.”

That’s Ovide Lamontagne - not Kelly Ayotte. Her campaign sent Lamontagne to the Derry forum to speak on her behalf.

He tells the audience Ayotte had a prior commitment, but her absence sent a pretty clear message to Rubens.

“Do I see the rationale? Yeah. Their strategy is avoid the fact there’s a primary going on. And the problem with that is Kelly Ayotte and Maggie Hassan are very, very similar on the issues.”

And that’s Rubens’ core selling point: he believes he’s the only candidate who can beat Hassan this fall.

As evidence, he points to a recent WBUR poll that shows Ayotte down ten points to the Democratic governor.

“So Republicans need to gather their wits about them and confront the fact that we’ve got to have another nominee that can pull conservatives and libertarians and Trump voters back into an enlarged Republican party sufficient to win the general election.”

But, that same WBUR poll reveals a major problem for his campaign: the majority of voters – 62 percent – have no idea who he is.

Rubens knows low name ID is a challenge, but says it’s due to the corrupt campaign finance system he’s bent on reforming.

“If you can raise millions of dollars from lobbyists on K Street, you become quote-unquote viable, and then the media covers you. So we have a serious issue deficit driven by the fact that we have an extremely corrupt money system in Washington. And it’s blocking debate.”

Rubens served two terms as a state Senator from Hanover in the ‘90s, when he wrote and helped pass the state’s charter school law.

He’s also a staunch anti-gambling activist and has bucked his own party by saying there’s science proving man-made climate change is real.

That was an issue he made a centerpiece of his unsuccessful 2014 U.S. Senate bid, when he finished second to Scott Brown in the Republican primary, getting about 23 percent of the vote.

“We’re not talking about a politician with a lot to lose,” says Dante Scala, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.

He describes Rubens as the kind of politician who isn’t going to worry about burning some bridges in his own party by challenging the incumbent in a primary.

“For better or worse, I think he’s got his mind set on going to Washington and he’s got national issues, such as deficits, the debt, he wants to address.”

But Scala says the challenges Rubens faces now are the same he had during his first Senate bid two years ago.

“That is lack of establishment support, lack of resources to drive his message. But the foremost problem is that he still doesn’t pass the “who’s that” test among likely Republican primary voters. And Kelly Ayotte obviously doesn’t have that problem.”

But that isn’t to say Rubens doesn’t have his backers.

Valerie Fraser is a North Hampton Republican, and one of 40 state representatives who publicly endorsed Rubens in June.

And she says it was her dissatisfaction with Ayotte that drove her to Rubens.

“It sort of has to be about Kelly Ayotte to a certain extent because she is the incumbent. It’s about her because we either support her or we don’t. Just happens I don’t, so Jim Rubens is my next choice.”

She’s hopeful Rubens can pull out a victory, but knows it’s a longshot.

“There’s just a lot of obstacles. There’s the money obstacle, the name recognition obstacle, and not getting any further name recognition from anybody in the press. They’re just making the assumption that the ballot’s going to be Ayotte and Hassan.”

The New Hampshire Conservative Majority Project and the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project have both endorsed Rubens.

And while the conservative 603 Alliance says it favors Rubens in the race, the group stopped short of endorsing either candidate.

But there’s still some sting in Rubens’ voice when you ask him about the one high-profile endorsement he didn’t get: Donald Trump.

“Two days before, Kelly Ayotte was weak, and then two days later, she was a rising star. So how does one go from rising star to weak?” Rubens says, rhetorically.

Rubens has been vocal about his support Trump, emphasizing he’s both supporting and endorsing the Republican nominee, something he reminds voters Ayotte still refuses to do.

And Rubens says he still backs Trump, despite Trump endorsing his opponent.

“I’d prefer it otherwise, but I can tell you that it’s not affecting voters much in the state here. Voters can clearly see that Donald Trump, or at least that’s what they tell me in line down in Windham, that he did so out of duty to the Republican party and it wasn’t really in his heart.”

And while she wasn’t here at the Derry forum, Rubens will get his chance to take on Ayotte this week, when they meet for their first of two debates before the Sept. 13 primary.