Republicans running for U.S. Senate and New Hampshire’s 1st Congressional District took part in a candidate forum in Derry Monday night.
Notably absent, however, was the state’s most prominent Republican – U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte, who is up for re-election this fall and is facing a primary challenger.
That meant of the four men taking questions from the audience at the Halligan Tavern in downtown Derry, only three were actually running for office.
“I’m honored to stand for her tonight,” said former gubernatorial candidate Ovide Lamontagne, who was at the forum on behalf of the first-term Senator. “She sends her apologies. She had a longtime commitment and wasn’t able to here, but Derry’s very important to Kelly.”
Ayotte’s absence didn’t go unnoticed by another incumbent facing a primary challenge: Congressman Frank Guinta.
“Kelly looks a little different this evening,” he said, jokingly.
But it was another prominent Republican not in the room who dominated the discussion.
The candidates were asked whether they would actively support and endorse Donald Trump.
Former state Senator Jim Rubens, who is trying to unseat Ayotte, who wasted no time trying to draw a distinction between himself and his opponent.
“Long after Donald Trump became the nominee, Kelly Ayotte was carping at him, throwing pot shots at him, as recently as a few days ago. I endorsed Donald Trump back in February. I’m not just voting for him, I endorsed him.”
Rubens said he still supports Trump, even though just last week Trump endorsed Ayotte.
And while Ayotte has made the distinction that she supports but won’t endorse Trump, Lamontagne, speaking on her behalf, said it’s time for all Republicans need to get behind their nominee.
“And this is a time of vetting. It’s important to note: who’s with us? We had every candidate in the presidential primary raise a hand give an oath they would support the nominee. Shame on any Republican candidate for president who would not endorse this candidate.”
And Lamontagne made it clear Ayotte is behind Trump.
“We have to work as a team,” Lamontagne said. “At the end of the day, the nominee is who we get behind. And I can assure you Kelly Ayotte will be part of the team.”
Still, New Hampshire 1st District candidate Rich Ashooh didn’t explicitly endorse Trump, though the longtime defense executive made clear his opposition to Hillary Clinton.
Ashooh’s opponent – Congressman Frank Guinta – was more straightforward in his support for the nominee, saying Trump would be a better president that Clinton.
“Think of it this way: I am your representative. Who do you want me advocating to? Do you want me advocating to Hillary Clinton? Or do you want me advocating to Donald Trump? He wants to focus on the middle class and I think he’s legitimately serious about it. I don’t think Hillary Clinton is.”
The questions all came from the audience, ranging from where the candidates stood on abortion to how they would handle veterans care.
Ashooh said programs like veterans choice simply aren’t working.
“It’s the right idea. It’s the sort of thing that should work better. It allows veterans to go anywhere they want. But it’s a last resort. We need to turn that on its head. Veterans should be able to go anywhere they want, paid for by the taxpayer.”
The four men shared the stage at the same time, and while Guinta and Ashooh rarely went after each other, Jim Rubens repeatedly went after Ayotte.
Here he is trying to tie Ayotte to Hillary Clinton on foreign policy decisions like the 2011 intervention in Libya.
“My opponent Kelly Ayotte backed Hillary Clinton on these grossly failed policies that have spread ISIS like a cancer. ISIS is in our country. We need to contain them. We need borders in our country.”
Attacks like that didn’t seem to resonate in a room where nearly everyone was wearing an Ayotte campaign sticker or t-shirt.
Rubens has yet to get a chance to engage directly with Ayotte, though they do have a pair of debates scheduled just before the September 13th primary.
And it’s clear he’s got some ground to make up: a UNH/WMUR poll last month found 62 percent of voters didn’t know enough about him to form an opinion.