Paul Steinhauser: The biggest NH winners from Romney's exit
CONCORD - Mitt Romney's exit from the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination means New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary is back in business.
But the big question now is which potential GOP candidates will benefit the most from the 2012 Republican nominee's departure?
"It probably helps the more ‘establishment' candidates," said longtime GOP consultant Steve Duprey.
And a bunch of leading Granite State Republican strategists contacted by National Journal and NH1 agree.
Romney's extremely well known in New Hampshire. He owns a vacation home along Lake Winnipesaukee, was governor of neighboring Massachusetts, campaigned for himself in the Granite State in the 2008 and 2012 presidential cycles, and stumped for Republican candidates in New Hampshire in the 2010 and 2014 midterms. If Romney had run, he would have started as firm front runner for the first-in-the-nation primary. An NH1 automated survey conducted two weeks ago of those likely to vote in next year's primary indicated Romney far ahead of the rest of the field of other potential GOP White House contenders.
"It makes New Hampshire much more competitive, it's no longer ‘we'll write it off to Romney'," added Duprey, a former state GOP chairman and current committeeman to the Republican National Committee.
"It probably makes the New Hampshire primary all the more important, simply because Gov. Romney has a house here, he's considered a part-time resident. He campaigned here in 2008, won in 2012, and I think a lot of candidates might have thought it would be tough to overcome his advantages," said David Carney, a veteran Republican consultant who was a longtime adviser to then-Gov. Rick Perry of Texas.
"Now with him out of the race it means it's completely wide open and great for our field of 18 or 19 potential candidates," Carney added.
The biggest winners
Besides New Hampshire, those who benefit the most from Romney's exit appear to be the potential center-right candidates.
Tom Rath, a longtime GOP consultant and senior Romney adviser who's now neutral, said "I think it helps the people who are in the center-right cluster. That would be Gov. Bush, Gov. Christie. And I think it may help Gov. Walker."
"I think in some ways his departure doesn't help people who are running to the right too much, because their race is still amongst themselves and he didn't' take much from there. The way to win this primary tends to be to run center-right and he had a big chunk of that electorate. That's what's in play," Rath added.
"It probably helps the more ‘establishment' candidates," added Duprey. "It basically it opens up a to a lot of people the freedom go and actively solicit and seek out who they want to support and it will make New Hampshire more exciting."
But Carney's not convinced.
"I think if possible, it may help some of the candidates who are what I call the mainstream conservative end of our party, rather than the more conservative end, but you never know," Carney added.
Romney's departure doesn't just help candidates when it comes to Granite State voters, it also allows them to make inroads with Romney's vaunted team of New Hampshire strategists and activists.
"The Romney coalition that we built for eight years, and that got 40% of the vote in 2012 is now today, looking at other candidates," said Jim Merrill, an experienced Manchester based GOP consultant who was a top adviser to Romney's 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns.
When it comes to gaming the field, Merrill said "I think Gov. Romney's exit immediately benefits people like Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio, to name four. But I think that any candidate that decides to spend time and campaign in New Hampshire will get a fair and honest hearing from our voters."
Andrew Hemingway is a leading grassroots conservative activist in New Hampshire. The entrepreneur, who made a bid for the 2014 GOP gubernatorial nomination, thinks Romney's announcement will hurt a conservative candidate's chances of winning the nomination.
"It's pretty obvious, the Bush machine, the establishment machine is going to consolidate around Jeb. They could not afford to have multiple people running from that same faction," said Hemingway, who thinks that Christie will ultimately give up his bid for the nomination, leaving the establishment field to Bush.
"You have 25 conservatives running, from Walker to Paul to Cruz to Rubio," Hemingway added, naming a few of the top potential contenders.
But Hemingway lamented that "numerically the race is over. It's done. It's a no brainer. Numerically a conservative is not going to win this race if there's ten of them and one Jeb Bush."
If you factor in independents, Romney's departure seems to further help those in the center-right. Independents play a big role in New Hampshire's primary, as they and other undeclared voters can cast a ballot in either party's contest. And with a Democratic nomination that as of now appears to be Hillary Clinton's for the taking, they could be a major influence in the GOP primary.
Rath suggested that "if the Democratic race stays the way it appear to be now, which is primarily a coronation for Sec. Clinton, that that means that more independents are going to take Republican ballots, and the more independents who vote in the Republican primary, the more it orients the primary not to the right pole, but more to the center."