Third in a series of interviews with New Hampshire candidates for U.S. Senate.
When Bob Smith says “we can rise to the challenges,” he’s starting with a big one: earning back the U.S. Senate seat he held from 1990 to 2002.
He promptly agreed to meet with me when I asked him for an interview. We met at the home of a neighbor of mine who has been a longtime Smith supporter. Relaxed and casually dressed, he still retains the confident bearing of the man who won five elections to federal office from New Hampshire. Smith represented New Hampshire’s First Congressional District for six years before being elected to the Senate for two terms.
While in Washington, Smith was renowned for his conservative views and his pro-life leadership. He served up no surprises when I asked him, as I’ve asked other candidates, where they are on the life issues.
As we spoke, he summed up his current candidacy in upbeat terms.
“What direction is America going? We can all hearken back to Reagan, a very positive man. He said ‘We’re Americans. We can do better. We can rise to the challenge.’ And that will be my theme: rise to the challenge. The health care law is a challenge. The invasion of our privacy by the NSA is a challenge. The debt is a challenge. They are challenges we can meet. Our founders met challenges; why can’t we? [Can’t we do that] in their memory and in their honor and for posterity? That’s the theme. I think it’s basic. Winning means getting people with the right principles to turn this around.”
On being pro-life: “I’ve never walked away from it before and I don’t intend to do so now.”
Smith was the original sponsor of federal legislation to ban the partial-birth abortion method, putting himself in the vanguard of social change. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately upheld partial-birth bans. Now, even New Hampshire has such legislation on the books, over a John Lynch veto, because the savagery of that particular abortion method is so far out of the mainstream.
“You know my position, because I had 18 years of a 100% pro-life voting record. Unfortunately, this issue can be divisive. But you have to stand firm on it, and I intend to. Some candidates can say ‘I will.’ I can say ‘I did AND I will.'”
He noted that one of his announced opponents in the primary has the same pro-life views. What’s the difference? “Twelve years of Senate seniority. The difference is the track record – the record of having been in office, making the votes, winning and losing, taking the floor and fighting the likes of [Sen. Barbara] Boxer and [Sen. Ted] Kennedy.”
On running in the GOP primary
Primaries are nothing new to Smith. In 2002, he lost his Senate seat when John E. Sununu prevailed in the Republican primary. Sununu went on to defeat Jeanne Shaheen before Shaheen returned the favor in 2008.
Bob Smith knows Karen Testerman and Jim Rubens, who have already announced their candidacies for Shaheen’s seat. “I like them both. I don’t believe in trying to talk somebody into or out of a race. I’m a believer in the voters making that choice. I’m not afraid of primaries. I’m not going to make an issue out of personalities. I think you have to put your positions out there, and let people make the choice.” He acknowledges that Scott Brown is “a wild card.”
While keeping a home in New Hampshire, Smith acquired a residence in Florida after leaving the Senate. He ran briefly for Senate in Florida in 2004 and 2010, leaving the contest early in each campaign. The excitement I’ve seen among some New Hampshire Republicans over a potential Scott Brown candidacy tells me that out-of-state connections aren’t necessarily a stopper for any candidate, including Smith. I think the former senator will probably get more flak from legacy Republicans for the frustration he expressed against the GOP during his second Senate term. (Smith says his Republican registration never lapsed, despite his brief declaration of independent status.) So how does he get along with the GOP, whose nomination he seeks?
“I’m reaching out to all of them,” Smith says, referring to NHGOP leaders. “I want to let them know that in spite of the past, I’ve done a lot of good things for the GOP in terms of fundraising events for candidates. I have a 98.9% voting record with the GOP platform. If I’m the nominee, I expect it’s fair that I have the support of the party. And I’m going to work very hard to become the nominee.
“Now, look – I’ve been in politics before, and I know there’s baggage out there. I’ve made my share of mistakes. I’ve tried to admit that. And where there weren’t mistakes, I defend myself and just move on. I’m more than happy to answer any of the questions that anybody has.
“I don’t hold personal grudges against people. I respect peoples’ positions. That’s OK, and we just move on.”
How about the fact that 40% of the New Hampshire electorate now declines to affiliate with either major party? Is he comfortable reaching out to independents? “Absolutely. No political party can be successful without help from the independents.”
On building a new campaign
Smith is doing what he did for his first congressional race in 1982: building from scratch. Recalling that campaign, he notes “My first coffee was three people in Kingston, New Hampshire. No one else showed up. I started with 3×5 cards and telephones. That’s it.” While he fell short in that first campaign, losing to Democrat Norm D’Amours, the work paid off in 1984 with the first of his five federal campaign victories.
He launched his current campaign eleven days ago. Gone are the 3×5 cards, replaced by more modern technology. There’s Facebook, of course. His campaign web site has pages for issues and for donations, with the full site due to launch soon (www.bobsmithforussenate.com). He’s still building his contact list one name at a time, taking nothing for granted. His zest for campaign work is evident.
As a former Senator, Smith understands the need for serious fundraising. “It does take money. You’ve got to have an office. You’ve got to have computers. We’re going to be as frugal as anybody. If we do this right, we should be able to raise enough from our grassroots people. If people really want to change this country, this is the way we’re going to have to do it.
“We’re a grassroots campaign. That’s how I’ve always done it. I’ve won with a lot of small donors. Some big contributions, of course. But mostly small donors. I’ve never won with big money.”
On Senator Jeanne Shaheen and the President’s health care law
In our lengthy conversation, Smith didn’t have an unkind word for anyone – not even the woman whose seat he’s trying to take. “I respect Jeanne Shaheen. She’s a public servant. She has her ideas, and I respect her for having them, but her ideas are wrong.”
He discussed Shaheen’s role in passage of the Affordable Care Act (and not once did Smith use the word “Obamacare” during our conversation). “Not too long ago, people were ready to write this race off. Now I think they realize that with the health care issue especially, it’s going to be tough for the Democrats to defend.”
Does Shaheen’s recent pitch for tweaks in the health care law address the concerns of Granite Staters? “I don’t think so. They all know that if we had read the bill in the first place, we wouldn’t be in this position. Now we know that you can lose your doctor, you can lose your health insurance. It’s up to the voters to decide, but what we’ve got to do is present that. I think this issue hurts in a big way because it transcends party lines. This is a bad law that was not properly vetted. People have only one venue to take it out on anybody, and that’s at the ballot box. And so we just have to point it out, with respect. I don’t know if she knew [the law] was a lie when it passed, but she took it for fact without reading the bill.”
On the Tea Party and the “war on women”
Smith is aware of how the term “war on women” cowed Republicans in 2012. He also knows how the term “Tea Party” is being used as a derisive term by New Hampshire Democrats. The threat of attacks on those grounds doesn’t scare him.
“Let me tell you what a war on women is. War on women is when you force them out of their health care, and force them to go to a doctor they don’t even know, or you force them to pay four times more for their insurance, or a businesswoman who is trying to employ people and is now being told how much more she has to pay to give them insurance – that’s a war on women.”
While Smith resided in Florida, he was invited to address a number of different organizations “People who knew I was a senator from New Hampshire, no longer in office, asked me to come speak. Some were Tea Party groups. These people are not nuts. They believe in fiscal restraint, in liberty and the Constitution, and they’re having an impact. Because of that, they’re being attacked. And you know, wear that as a badge of honor. I respect the Tea Party, I want their support, and I feel optimistic that they will support me, based on not only my past, but also my future votes in the Senate.”
“I know you didn’t ask about age, but I’m going to talk about it.”
Smith is 72. He brought up his age, unprompted. “I know you didn’t ask about age, but I’m going to talk about it. In the Senate, age isn’t much of a problem, as long as you can function, as long as you’re healthy, your mind is still there and you can do it. I’m not the 40-year-old anymore, but I’m hoping that I can be kind of the transition person to turn this mess around and get us back on track, to stop the horse from galloping, if you will. Meet these challenges, as I talk about.
“If I can turn things around, and get us back to our Constitutional liberties, reduce our debt, get foreign policy straightened out, there will be plenty of people to jump in the saddle after me. And that’s great.”
Read earlier interviews in this series: Karen Testerman and Jim Rubens.