In September 2010, Mitt Romney invited all of the Republican candidates for the New Hampshire Senate to lunch in a conference room in Concord. He thanked them for running for office, then gave each of them a $1,000 check made out to their campaigns. “He did it in a very personal manner. It wasn’t an impersonal, get-the-check-in-the-mail type of thing,” recalls Jim Rausch, one of the candidates. “I appreciated it.”
It isn’t just state Senate candidates: No New Hampshire politician, it turns out, is too insignificant to get a check from Romney. Small-town Republican committees, county sheriffs, and district attorneys have all have been recipients of his largesse. Often, the money is accompanied by personal courting. Recently, Grafton County Sheriff Douglas Dutile, who received $500 from Romney last year, hosted a lunch for the candidate and other sheriffs. “We talked about world affairs,” says Merrimack County Sheriff Scott Hilliard, who received $750 from Romney in 2006 and another $500 last year. “Governor Romney liked the beans that Sheriff Dutile’s wife made and went back for more.”
Not surprisingly, many of those who have received money from Romney are supporting him. Rausch and three of the Senate’s other 18 Republicans have provided endorsements, with more expected soon. (Only one other senator has made an endorsement—for Ron Paul.) Dutile is backing Romney, as is Hilliard, who supported John McCain last time around.
Lots of explanations have been offered for why Romney—who has a vacation home in New Hampshire—is so far ahead in the state after losing its crucial primary to McCain in 2008. Romney’s supporters point to his improvement as a campaigner, the lousy economy—which plays to Romney’s business background—and the weaker competition. But something else may be on display as well: a rather impressive ability to wear down New Hampshire’s local Republican elite through relentless, calculated generosity.
CANDIDATES HAVE PLIED New Hampshire with disproportionate attention for decades. But few if any presidential contenders have passed around money in the state as prodigiously as Romney. Starting in 2006, Romney began donating to local Republicans through his “leadership PAC,” which could raise unlimited sums from wealthy backers. Last year alone, Romney distributed more than $1 million to candidates around the country, far more than his rivals. Tom Rath, the New Hampshire power broker who serves as a well-remunerated adviser to Romney, was blunt in a 2010 interview with National Journal: “We’ve been up here a lot. Our checks have been up here, too.”
This approach may finally be paying off, in part because of a quirk in New Hampshire’s politics. The lower house of its legislature has 400 members, making it one of the largest representative bodies in the world, with one member per 3,300 residents. This means that some odd people find their way into government—when I covered the legislature in the late ’90s, it included a mentally disabled man who would later lose his seat to his former fiancée and a man who later accused his housemate, also a representative, of possessing child pornography—but it also means that the state’s elected officials are unusually close to their constituents and therefore in a position to influence them. As Jamie Burnett, Romney’s 2008 political director in New Hampshire, told me, “The art of it is: Let’s help out Republican candidates up and down the ticket because these people are very tied into their communities, ... and they can bring additional support to you.”
For this strategy to work, of course, it helps if the objects of Romney’s generosity proclaim naïve ignorance of the entire dynamic. Rausch told me it never occurred to him that the checks last year were given with an eye toward the 2012 primary: “It was viewed by everyone I spoke with as he’s supporting Republican candidates running for Senate in New Hampshire—that’s it, period, no strings attached.” Helping Republicans downplay the power of Romney’s money is the fact that he was not simply writing checks, as other deep-pocketed candidates have done, but also putting in serious time in the state—campaigning for himself, yes, but also for other candidates. Transparent as these efforts may seem, supporters like State Senator Jeb Bradley cast them as proof of Romney’s selflessness. After 2008, Bradley says, Romney “could’ve taken his marbles and gone home, but he took his name recognition and got on airplanes to get people elected. That’s the kind of person I’d like to see, who puts the good of the country beyond his own personal ambitions.”
Recently, I spoke to Fran Wendelboe, a staunch social conservative who served 14 years as a state representative before losing a primary bid for the state Senate last fall. I asked her which conservative in this year’s field she was supporting. “To tell you the truth,” she said, “I’m taking a second look at Romney.” I was shocked: What about his pro-choice past? She explained that she’d seen a lot of him around the state and thought he deserved another chance. I called her back later, still puzzled over this development. I couldn’t help but ask: Had she gotten money from Romney in her last campaign? No, because he wasn’t giving to candidates in contested primaries. “But,” she added, laughing, “I’m positive that, if I’d won the primary, I would’ve had money from Romney as well.”
Alec MacGillis is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the November 3, 2011, issue of the magazine.