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UPDATED: In New Hampshire, Republicans defend their last U.S. House seats in New England

This report is part of collaboration with WNYC’s “It’s a Free Country” to cover the 25 most captivating congressional races from around the country.

The first question U.S. Rep. Frank Guinta (R) received at a recent town hall meeting in Greenland, N.H., echoed sentiments freshmen House Republicans, only seven months into their first terms, are hearing across the country from their constituents: “You signed the Grover Norquist tax pledge, but you also took the oath of office. Which one takes precedence?”

In 2010, Guinta and Charlie Bass, who now represents New Hampshire’s Second Congressional District, undid one of the Democratic Party’s accomplishments of the 2008 election which was unprecedented in modern American political history: possession of every House seat in New England.

Now the pair face the difficult task of navigating between the conservatives who dominate their party and their constituents who are known for their independence and high degree of political knowledge (in large part due to their state’s early presidential primary). And as the Republican Party has become more and more Southern and socially conservative, New England is the region that Democrats wish to once again unquestioningly call their own after the 2012 election.

No less than three Democratic candidates have emerged in the primary to run against Guinta for the First Congressional District. Former Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, who Guinta beat in 2010, has already begun her campaign to retake the seat. But Joanne Dowdell, an investment firm executive from Portsmouth who describes herself as a “progressive Democrat,” has challenged Shea-Porter in the primary. Andrew Hosmer, a businessman from Laconia who previously ran for state Senate, has also entered the race.

Guinta is somewhat less vulnerable than Bass because the Second District, encompassing the southeastern coastal parts of the state, is the more conservative one. Guinta, a New Jersey native who moved to New Hampshire in the 1990s, served as mayor of Manchester for four years before beating Shea-Porter in 2010. Although he benefited greatly with a state unhappy with its Democratic incumbents, his campaign was plagued with a campaign finance scandal, when he lent his own campaign over $350,000 without disclosing the bank records that would have proved the money was his.

It’s also possible that a series of votes by Guinta in the 112th Congress will weigh him down during the campaign. Both Guinta and Bass voted for House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan’s controversial budget proposal to replace Medicare with a system of voucher-like support payments for seniors to purchase private insurance; both also supported the “Cut, Cap, and Balance” bill, which would have capped government spending at 18 percent of GDP and was used as leverage during the debt ceiling debate.

Both also voted for the debt ceiling increase that passed earlier this month, which tea party groups across the country have decried as a betrayal of core conservative principles. Guinta, who identified as a tea party Republican during his race against Shea-Porter, could now be facing a primary challenge against Mike Malzone, a former town councilor from Merrimack, N.H., and the founder of a local tea party group.

Guinta is an example of how the tea party, which claimed grassroots authenticity as an insurgent movement rejecting the Obama administration’s policies, was appropriated by many ‘establishment’ Republicans in the 2010 midterm, says New Hampshire political analyst Dean Spiliotes.

Guinta has “been a politician for a while,” says Spiliotes. “He made an effort to position himself as a tea party regular, and it was a smart way to position himself.”

Now, tea party associations face something of a backlash, not just from Americans in general, but also from some Republicans. This was made clear in New Hampshire during the ongoing scandal over state GOP chair Jack Kimball*, who got into Republican politics by founding the tea party group Granite State Patriots in 2009 and won his current position despite strong opposition from the moderate wing of the New Hampshire Republicans, including former Gov. John Sununu. His term as party chair has been a disappointment according to some, based on low fundraising numbers and an embarrassing signature on a petition for the Libertarian Party to appear on the general election ballot, which he has since had removed.

Guinta has joined other high-ranking New Hampshire Republican elected officials in calling for Kimball to resign. But Kimball’s troubles reflect the broader sense that tea party conservatives in the state have overreached.

“Certainly we had a big changeover in the state Legislature in 2010 and a lot of those folks adopted the tea party rhetoric,” says Spiliotes. “But we have a long libertarian tradition in the state, so there’s the question of is there already enough of that ideological flavor in Republican politics.”

In a cycle where incumbents are at historically low approval ratings, Guinta is no exception. Since February, Guinta’s favorability-unfavorability ratio is at 24-30, the lowest it’s been since his election, according to the WMUR Granite State Poll from the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

But Spiliotes says whoever the Democrats pick could help Guinta’s reelection, particularly if they don’t, “come up with a new and interesting challenger.”

“If it’s Shea-Porter trying to get her seat back,” he says, “There could be a sense with the voters in the district that that group of politicians, that progressive moment in 2006 and 2008, they had their time. I don’t think she would be a particularly strong challenger.”

In contrast with its early presidential primary, the state primary in New Hampshire is quite late, scheduled for September of next year, which Republicans believe will organizationally damage whoever wins the First District primary. But whoever does will benefit from a more energized progressive base than in 2010, particularly when the early presidential primary will have left the state’s Democrats all too familiar with whichever Republican is running against Obama for president.

*Updated Friday, September 2, 10:55 AM: The Concord Monitor reports that Jack Kimball has resigned as New Hampshire GOP state chair.

This report is part of collaboration with WNYC’s “It’s a Free Country” to cover the 25 most captivating congressional races from around the country.

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