Walt Havenstein's Strengths In General Election May Be Weaknesses In Primary

Sep 5, 2014

Havenstein speaking to the press at BAE Systems in Nashua.
Credit Ryan Lessard / NHPR

  As former President of BAE Systems, Walt Havenstein led one of New Hampshire’s largest employers. That’s one reason top Republicans encouraged the millionaire business-man to get into the governor’s race. Havenstein has vastly outspent his Republican opponent but this race remains tight.

It’s not every day a candidate for New Hampshire governor has a fighter jet on his resume. But former marine Walt Havenstein, who built planes as a defense contractor, talks them up constantly.

In TV ads.

 “… This F22 we helped build at BAE systems in Nashua flies at Mach 2.”

And on the campaign trail…

“… we delivered the F22 software. And that program went on to be one of the most successful programs in the Department of Defense.”

“Whether we’re working on F22 or not…”

“…The electronic software suite for the F22.”

But whether this messaging can lift Havenstein’s campaign isn’t clear. So far he’s plowed $1.5 million of his own money into this race.

He’s also received endorsements from national figures like Mitt Romney and Chris Christie.

“I’m gonna be up here often to help Walt as much as I possibly can and the RGA will be engaged here because we believe that Walt is an outstanding candidate with a real chance to win.”

Many see help from national Republicans and money from the Republican Governors Association as essential for the GOP to run competitively against Maggie Hassan. A party’s success in the governor’s race can have a major effect on other races down the ballot.

Havenstein’s business resume, deep pockets and lack of political baggage were all seen as strengths by those who urged him to get in this race.

But lack of campaign experience isn’t always a plus. Havenstein has occasionally stumbled on the trail. And has said things that could give core Republicans pause. Here’s Havenstein the day he launched his campaign.

“I’m gonna tell you something. I don’t know what the Republican platform is today…”

And there are other issues. Such as Havenstein’s complicated relationship to so-called Obamacare. He says he always opposed it but a government tech company he led, SAIC, made millions helping to roll it out.

And with plenty of Republicans focusing on the U.S. Senate race, this one has fallen somewhat under the radar.

Havenstein at Herrick Tech Labs in Manchester unveiling his economic plan.
Credit Ryan Lessard / NHPR

Ralph Boehm, for instance, a state rep from Litchfield, says he’s still kicking the tires. He could vote for Havenstein but might vote for his primary opponent, conservative activist Andrew Hemingway.

“I haven’t really decided yet. I think Havenstein’s probably got a better record overall than Hemingway and probably has a better chance of winning…”

UNH Professor of Political Science Dante Scala says responses like that are emblematic of Havenstein’s situation.

“Despite all the money that he’s spent so far, momentum is a problem. And that’s becoming apparent in the last couple of weeks as the conventional wisdom among the political elite in this state is that this unknown, Andrew Hemingway, actually has a chance to win.”

Which places greater pressure on Havenstein to court the base of the party. That isn’t always easy for a candidate who’s on the record of being pro-choice, comfortable with same-sex marriage and not dead set on repealing expanded Medicaid.

“We have to address the future of Medicaid expansion and part of that has to be working with the legislature….”

Scala says while a measured approach might help him a general election, he still has a primary to win.

“He’s reaching to the Republican electorate at the same time that he’s trying to pivot to the general electorate and he’s having difficulty with that two-step.”

And he’ll have to do that dance on a big stage—WMUR TV—when faces Andrew Hemingway Friday night in the final debate before the primary. Their earlier meetings have at times been heated and personal. But Havenstein, who spent 30 years in the marines, says he’s up for the rough and tumble.

“I wouldn’t call it a blood sport, but it’s combative in its nature—that’s the nature of retail politics in New Hampshire. I wouldn’t expect it to be any different.”

And should he win the primary, it’s only going to get rougher between now and November.