A Tea Party Split in New Hampshire?

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Tuesday's GOP Senate primary in New Hampshire will pit two Tea Party icons against each other: Sarah Palin and Jim DeMint. The former Alaska governor is backing former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, who has solid Tea Party support, while the South Carolina senator has just endorsed Ovide Lamontagne, a lawyer with strong connections to state conservatives.

Palin and DeMint have played key roles in multiple primaries so far, their endorsements often accompanying insurgent victories over Republican incumbents or establishment picks. Palin's backing helped Joe Miller eke out a win over Lisa Murkowski in Alaska, DeMint's endorsement nudged Ken Buck toward victory in Colorado, and both figures lent support to Nevada's Sharron Angle and Kentucky's Rand Paul.

But while DeMint has hewed close to the Tea Party line, Palin's picks have been less consistent. Her Facebook fans rioted after she endorsed Carly Fiorina for Senate over Tea Party favorite Chuck DeVore in California, and again when she backed former Iowa governor Terry Branstad for re-election. She also supported John McCain over Tea Party candidate J.D. Hayworth in Arizona -- though that was, of course, to be expected.   

New Hampshire's race is a little more difficult to classify along Tea Party lines because Ayotte and Lamontagne don't differ too much on policy grounds. Ayotte has voiced her desire to "eliminate agencies, eliminate earmarks"; Lamontagne also supports eliminating earmarks (and claims that Ayotte supported the earmark process up until recently). Both candidates have pledged to repeal health care reform and stop stimulus spending.

Earlier in the race, Ayotte's main competition was from Bill Binnie, a businessman and self-funded candidate who's now fallen considerably in polls. While the two bickered, Lamontagne surged 22 points between July and September, according to two Public Policy Polling surveys, and now trails Ayotte by seven points.

Though insiders warn that the polling in this race is not reliable, they also suggest that an upset could be likely -- especially given that Lamontagne has pulled it off before. In 1996, he trailed in polls for the Republican gubernatorial primary but surprised the state by overtaking establishment pick Bill Zeliff. Ayotte has been running an aggressive campaign for months, but Lamontagne released his first TV ad just this month. As of August 25, Ayotte had spent over $2 million and Lamontagne just under $400,000. DeMint's PAC, however, has begun soliciting donations to be funneled toward Lamontagne.   

One Tea Party player this race is lacking is the influential Tea Party Express, whose last-minute cash infusions helped push Angle, Miller, and Utah's Mike Lee over the edge. Palin has close ties to the group and apparently urged them to get involved in the Alaska race. Tea Party Express has recently been spending money on behalf of Christine O'Donnell in the Senate race in Delaware, where O'Donnell has now caught up to establishment pick Mike Castle (both Palin and DeMint have endorsed O'Donnell).

In staying out of New Hampshire, Tea Party Express has avoided having to choose between two ostensible Tea Party candidates -- and potentially pissing Palin off.

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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