For five years, Rep. Frank Guinta has dismissed allegations that he broke campaign-finance laws as a political witch hunt orchestrated by Democrats. Now, his time in Congress may be over because of them, and Republicans are trying to make sure he doesn't take the party down with him.
After the Federal Election Commission found last week that Guinta illegally accepted $355,000 in campaign donations from his parents, the New Hampshire Republican is facing calls for his resignation, even from inside his own party. On Monday, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, the state's most prominent Republican officeholder, said Guinta should step down. For his part, Guinta said he's not going anywhere, according to an Associated Press report, though Ayotte's statement is just the latest sign Guinta's support is waning.
Behind the scenes, New Hampshire Republicans are plotting their strategy to keep one of the country’s most volatile swing seats and run a strong coordinated campaign with the GOP presidential nominee and Ayotte in 2016—and Guinta does not factor into their plans. Even if he decides to run for reelection, he could face a bruising primary fight. If he were to win renomination, some Republicans are already saying Democrats would have an unbeatable advantage.
"Frank is dead politically," said Fergus Cullen, a former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party and the only Republican reached who would speak on the record. Cullen is one of the few Republicans who's been raising questions about Guinta's finances for years. "There's no recovery from this."
One New Hampshire GOP strategist who has run several races in the state added: "These are very serious allegations, and his explanations have not matched up. He cannot win in 2016. It's not just him on the ballot. It's Kelly Ayotte, it's Republican senators, Republican House members, a Republican candidate for governor," the veteran GOP strategist said. "All of them are going to want to run free from the guilt-by-association that Democrats will look to create linkage with."
Republicans are already floating potential candidates who could run in 2016. Rich Ashooh and Sean Mahoney, who both narrowly lost to Guinta in the 2010 primary, are possible contenders. In 2014, Guinta's comeback bid faced a primary roadblock from Dan Innis, the former business school dean at the University of New Hampshire.
Innis would consider running if it were an open-seat race, a source close to him told National Journal.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, which helped Guinta win in 2014, is "continuing to evaluate this very complex situation," spokeswoman Katie Martin said.
First elected in 2010, Guinta rode that year's GOP wave to victory in New Hampshire's southeastern congressional district, unseating Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter. Two years later, Shea-Porter defeated Guinta, before Guinta reclaimed the seat in 2014.
But while presidential candidates in both parties stretch the bounds of campaign-finance law with unlimited-money groups, the financing of Guinta's candidate committee has caught up to him. Democrats, especially Shea-Porter, have for years raised questions about the source of the $355,000 candidate loan Guinta's campaign reported at the end of 2010. Guinta has denied any wrongdoing, saying that he and his wife had saved up the money before he became the mayor of Manchester in 2005. But it didn't appear on his initial financial disclosures, and now, the recently released FEC statement concluded that Guinta used funds from his parents' bank account to make the campaign loans.
After years of vociferously dismissing the allegations that he funded his campaign illegally, Guinta now says he's agreed to the FEC's penalties to end the allegations, which he's termed as "distractions."
Guinta has also said he gave documents to media outlets to show he put more money into the account than he netted in contributions. But according to the New Hampshire Union Leader, the documents pointed to only about $100,000 in deposits. And they offer little indication that the issue will go away.
In a letter published Sunday on his campaign website, Guinta apologized while saying that his only mistake was not properly reporting the money.
"Did my parents issue checks? Yes. ... Was it their money? No. Documents prove the funds were mine," he said. "I understand and share with you the frustration of this process, and I am sorry for my error that caused it." Guinta did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
So far, his district isn't buying that explanation.
On Friday, the conservative publisher of the Union Leader printed a six-word editorial beneath Guinta's picture: "Frank Guinta is a damned liar." Over the weekend, the paper, along with the Eagle-Tribune, argued that Guinta should resign. And former Republican Rep. Jeb Bradley, Guinta's onetime boss, said Guinta is on a "lonely island."
"Should he run for reelection, he would spend that entire reelection campaign explaining that issue, and that is a bad place to be in right now," University of New Hampshire pollster Andy Smith said.
"This has created a real opening for Republicans," said Kathy Sullivan, a Democratic National committeewoman in New Hampshire. "I would bet 50 bucks that in November 2016, Frank Guinta will not be the nominee."
Meanwhile, Democrats' chances at retaking a famously swingy swing seat have just gone up. Guinta has so far drawn one Democratic opponent, businessman Shawn O'Connor. O'Connor on Monday called on Guinta to resign.
"We're not looking at this from whether this gives us an advantage or not," O'Connor told National Journal. "We're looking at this in terms of restoring integrity to the political process."
Shea-Porter, who could not immediately be reached for comment, has been silent on her plans in the wake of the FEC investigation. In an email in April, Shea-Porter signaled that she was seriously eyeing the race and said Democrats could win the seat with higher turnout.
Executive Councilor Chris Pappas and state Sens. Andrew Hosmer and Donna Soucy are other possible Democratic candidates.
If Guinta does resign, he would be the third House Republican to step down since the beginning of 2014, following former Reps. Michael Grimm of New York and Aaron Schock of Illinois.
This post has been updated with comment from the NRCC.