New Hampshire Rep. Frank Guinta barely survived his primary and will face off against former Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter for the fourth consecutive time in the infamously swingy 1st District.
With 100 percent of precincts reporting as of Wednesday morning, Guinta squeaked by Republican primary opponent Rich Ashooh by 649 votes.
Before the race was called, both candidates were scheduled to appear at the New Hampshire Republican Party's Unity breakfast Wednesday morning.
But Ashooh conceded before that.
"Despite the still close margin, I am conceding this race to my opponent so that the Republican ticket can immediately position itself for a victory in November," he said.
A year ago, Guinta had been widely expected to lose his primary because of campaign finance violations that had alienated him from much of the Granite State Republican establishment.
But he felt the tide begin to turn this summer, when he was home in his district, knocking on doors and getting out the word about his bipartisan work in Congress on the heroin epidemic.
Ashooh, who finished third to Guinta in the 2010 primary, raised slightly more money than Guinta. But many Republicans who had high hopes for his campaign found it underwhelming.
His name recognition remained low throughout the summer. He — and two super PACs supporting him — were on the air with one ad each, but they failed to rake in the kind of money usually necessary to topple an incumbent, even an unpopular one.
But Guinta's negatives remained high, and Tuesday's nail-biter of a race underscores just how unpopular he has become.
His legal woes stem from his first run for Congress in 2010. His campaign accepted a $355,000 loan from an account owned by his parents. He denied any wrongdoing for five years, saying that the money in the account was his money, too. But in May 2015, the Federal Election Commission ruled that he had violated campaign finance laws by accepting a contribution in excess of the $2,400 limit.
He paid back the loan and paid a $15,000 fine to the FEC, but he'd already lost the support of many in his party.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte — the only other Republican in the state's congressional delegation — did not endorse in the primary, but she called on Guinta to resign last year.
When asked on Saturday about Ayotte's own primary, Guinta did not commit to supporting the senator. But he said he'd support her in the general election.
"That's in the past," he said, referring to Ayotte's resignation request.
Except for Ayotte, it clearly wasn't. She stood by her call for him to resign on Tuesday.
Even if Granite State GOP leaders had largely abandoned Guinta, Washington hadn't. In late 2015, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden held a fundraiser for the congressman in Washington. He continued to received contributions from fellow members of Congress in the weeks before the primary.
But Guinta's FEC issues aren't going away, especially in the general election race against Shea-Porter. She accused him of lying about being under FEC investigation in a 2014 debate.
In a presidential year, the fundamentals of this swing district work against Guinta. Shea-Porter won the seat in 2006 and 2008. But Guinta unseated her by 12 points in 2010, a strong year for Republicans. Two years later, in a presidential cycle, she reclaimed the seat by a 4-point margin.
"When we’re in a midterm and the turnout is not as good, that Republican numerical advantage takes hold," said Shea-Porter, reflecting on the race over a glass of chocolate milk in her hometown of Rochester last weekend.
But she sees the district trending blue. "Last time it was closer than before, so I think even the midterms are going to be looking different," she said.
This is Shea-Porter's sixth run for the seat. A lot has changed since 2006, especially the nature of campaigning. "It's just so much nastier," she said. Her first campaign, she recalled, was dubbed "the Cinderella campaign" because it relied on an all-volunteer staff.
Shea-Porter makes a point of not accepting corporate PAC money — "people appreciate and like that," she said. But she expects to see plenty of outside spending affecting her race.
"It's like ground zero," she said, especially with a competitive Senate race above her on the ticket. (Ayotte, who romped to victory in her GOP primary Tuesday, faces Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan in November.)
House Majority PAC, the political arm of House Democrats, has reserved $672,000 for television ads for the fall, with more likely to come from other Democratic groups. The NRCC has reserved $4.2 million for the race.
Guinta ended the pre-primary reporting period with $204,000 in cash on hand. Shea-Porter, who did not have a primary, had $216,000 in the bank at the end of August.
Libertarian Brendan Kelly, who took 4 percent of the vote in 2012, will be on the November ballot, as will independent Shawn O'Connor, who dropped out of the Democratic primary earlier this year.
O'Connor is hoping to peel votes away from both major-party nominees, not just Shea-Porter, he said at the Rochester Pride Festival over the weekend. He ended the second quarter with $74,000 in the bank.