Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s decision not to run for president a third time breaks wide open the 2016 New Hampshire presidential primary contest, something he was generally expected to win a second time.
Initial interviews suggest that Romney’s New Hampshire coalition, built over eight years, will probably diffuse among several Republican candidates, including former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, US Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, and Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin.
“New Hampshire is completely wide open right now,” said Republican consultant Jim Merrill, who oversaw Romney’s New Hampshire campaign in 2008 and 2012. “The Romney coalition that had 40 percent of the vote in 2012 is up for grabs.”
At the same time, there was no mad scramble Friday from other potential campaigns to scoop up the newly available players in the key primary state where Romney has owned a vacation home on Lake Winnipesaukee for years. Strategists for three potential candidates expected to play big in New Hampshire — Rand Paul, Bobby Jindal, and Christie — all said they weren’t changing their local plans in reaction to Romney’s announcement. Instead, in the immediate aftermath of the news, would-be candidates focused on the money — wooing Romney’s national donors.
For example, one Romney backer, New Hampshire state Senator Russell Prescott of Kingston, said the only phone calls he received Friday about Romney not running were from journalists.
New Hampshire Senate majority leader Jeb Bradley, a former congressman and close friend of the Romney family, said he was disappointed to hear that Romney wasn’t running because “he was by far and away the most qualified person to be president.”
Bradley predicted that Romney’s departure could bolster both Bush and Walker.
Former US senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire has endorsed Romney and the Bush family — both George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush — in the past. He said Romney’s decision was “a significant event.”
“He would have been formidable,” Gregg said of Romney. “Obviously Mitt has deep roots in New Hampshire, and this clearly changes the dynamics of the field, a field that is still in flux.”
Recent polling backs up Gregg’s take. University of New Hampshire pollster Andy Smith said Romney was leading the rest of the field of potential Republican presidential candidates by a 2 to 1 margin. Smith emphasized that a year away from the election, most voters aren’t paying attention — but donors and activists are. For this group, Smith said, Romney’s decision not to run “frees up the race.”
“They can make a choice, whereas before they were stuck with Romney out of loyalty,” Smith said. “This is big news for all of the other candidates. I don’t want to say Romney was the big gorilla in the race, but he was certainly the biggest name.”
That’s not by accident.
Since 2007 Romney worked hard to make himself something of a New Hampshire favorite son as he ran for president. He spent significant time at his Wolfeboro vacation home where he invited state representatives and county chairmen to grill out and cruise on his boat.
In 2012 he returned repeatedly to New Hampshire for the biggest moments of his presidential campaign.
He announced his candidacy on a farm in Stratham. After sealing the Republican nomination, he came back to Manchester to give a major speech where he pivoted to general election themes for the first time. He prepared his convention speech in Wolfeboro, took a break from debate prep against President Obama by popping into the State House in Concord, and closed his campaign on the final night to a packed crowd inside the state’s largest arena.
This attention meant Romney never let go of a dominant lead in New Hampshire for an entire year during primary season, even though he lost the state to Obama by 6 percentage points.
While Romney flirted with a third run in recent weeks, rival campaigns reacted by trying to lock down Iowa, in deference to the idea that New Hampshire was Romney country.
As a result, Romney’s Friday announcement leaves some of his most loyal New Hampshire supporters without an immediate Plan B.
This is how Beverly Bruce, Romney’s former New Hampshire finance chair, feels.
“Based on his announcement this morning, I’m going to step back and evaluate all the potential candidates before I make any commitments,” Bruce, of Tuftonboro, said Friday.
Merrill evaluated the new political landscape in the state.
“Anyone who wants to come up here and make a play is going to be well served,” Merrill said. “This is going to be a primary unlike any we have ever seen.”
“Right now it is catch your breath time for those who liked Mitt,” said Tom Rath, a close Romney confidant and former New Hampshire attorney general, who will now turn attention to the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. “I’ll spend my time now worrying about Tom Brady’s cold.”James Pindell can be reached at James.Pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.