Rep. Frank C. Guinta's campaign finance troubles could expand from a personal headache to a partywide migraine for New Hampshire Republicans worried about holding his House seat next fall.
Last week, the Federal Election Commission found Guinta violated campaign finance rules by accepting more than $350,000 in illegal campaign contributions, ordering him to pay back the funds along with a $15,000 fine. Guinta has refused to admit wrongdoing, but New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte Monday became the highest-profile Republican to suggest the congressman step down.
"It's a decision he needs to make, but if I were in his position, that's what I would do," Ayotte, among the senators vulnerable to defeat in 2016, told WMUR Monday , suggesting Guinta step aside.
Based in Manchester, the swingy 1st District has flipped control every cycle since 2008. President Barack Obama won it twice, and no statewide candidate has been victorious without carrying it. That means presidential contenders will spend time there before the first-in-the-nation primary, and the district will see fierce campaigning through Election Day from each party's eventual nominees.
Multiple Republican operatives told CQ Roll Call if Guinta remains in Congress, he'll be an unwanted distraction who could make things more difficult for their party's nominees up and down the ticket. He also could serve as a boogeyman for Democrats, who have delighted in his recent troubles and consider his seat among their most winnable.
"Here’s the problem: This isn’t Missouri, this is the first in the nation primary in the 2016 cycle. It’s the worst possible time for this to be happening, at least from the presidential standpoint," said one national GOP operative who has worked on House races in New England. "Ayotte protected herself, I think she’s fine, but it’s something that if it's not taken care of now, it’s going to drag on."
The National Republican Congressional Committee, for now, is standing by Guinta publicly.
"Frank Guinta works hard for the people of New Hampshire and we know this is a difficult time for him and his family," NRCC spokeswoman Katie Martin said in a statement. "We are continuing to evaluate this very complex situation."
The 1st District race is rated a Tilts Republican contest by the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call.
Democrats hoping to capture his seat seem split on if they'd rather face Guinta in 2016, or want him to resign — a move that would spark the first special election in the state in recent memory.
"If it’s a low turnout [special election], certainly that always favors Republicans," said one Massachusetts-based Democratic operative. "However given what Frank Guinta has put voters through in that district, they are not going to look at a Republican fondly."
If Guinta resigns, Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan would call a special election, which according to state law must be held between 110 and 124 days from the declared vacancy. Candidates would then have one week to file the necessary paperwork for a bid. If more than one candidate from each party qualified for the ballot, a primary would be held 49 days before the special election date.
In the event of a special election, Democrats say former Rep. Carol Shea-Porter — who was unseated by Guinta by fewer than 4 points last cycle and has already been mulling a rematch — would have a built-in advantage.
Shea-Porter has been sparring with Guinta repeatedly since the 2010 cycle, and has a campaign operation that could immediately get off the ground.
Democratic businessman Shawn O'Connor announced his candidacy before the campaign finance questions arose, and is working with top-flight consultants. Local party activists had also been trying to recruit New Hampshire Executive Councilor Chris Pappas, who is openly gay.
On the Republican side, former University of New Hampshire business school Dean Dan Innis, who attempted to win the nomination over the former congressman but lost by 9 points, could run. GOP operatives said they were impressed with his bid last cycle.
New Hampshire Executive Councilor Chris Sununu, who was talked about as a possible Shea-Porter rival last cycle, also could step up. He is related to the former senator and governor.
There's also a number of state legislators from the many state legislative districts who could consider a bid.
Related: Embattled Guinta Not Backing Down The Year of the Rematch N.H. Democrats Prep Kelly Ayotte Challenge Roll Call Race Ratings Map: Ratings for Every House and Senate Race in 2016 Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.