HUDSON, N.H. (AP) — The GOP hopes that Gary Lambert can revive the Republican brand in New England.
A former state senator and active-duty colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve, Lambert formally launched a congressional bid on Wednesday aimed at unseating first-term Democrat Annie Kuster in 2014.
Party leaders in Washington and New Hampshire consider the little-known Lambert the strongest challenger in the state's 2nd Congressional District, where Kuster defeated Republican Rep. Charlie Bass less than a year ago. The district, which encompasses all but the eastern portion of New Hampshire, is considered a swing district in a swing state — a place where Republicans believe they can reverse Democrats' recent dominance across the Northeast.
After a disastrous 2012 election cycle for the GOP, Democrats now hold all 21 House seats across New England's six states. And Lambert's upstart campaign underscores the challenges Republicans face in their quest for relevance across the region as the national party works to expand its appeal.
Declaring that Washington needs "fresh troops," Lambert suggested that the GOP needs to do a better job communicating its message.
"Republican ideas work. We've proven how they work in New Hampshire," the 53-year-old Lambert said Wednesday as he launched his campaign. "Voters are counting on Republicans to keep the focus on jobs and the strengthening the middle class, not divisive Washington politics."
National party leaders see both of New Hampshire's congressional seats as pickup opportunities in their fight to retain the House majority next fall; Democrats need to flip 17 seats nationwide to assume control of Congress' lower chamber. But New England offers few realistic opportunities for the GOP, where traditional Northeastern Republicans — fiscal conservatives who favor moderation on social issues — are all but extinct.
Democratic critics immediately painted Lambert as a rubber stamp for conservative firebrand, former state House Speak Bill O'Brien, who recently declined to run for the seat.
"With tea party radical Bill O'Brien out of the race, the extreme right found their guy to carry the torch in his place: Gary Lambert," said Democratic Congressional Campaign spokesman Marc Brumer. "New Hampshire voters won't be fooled by another out-of-touch candidate with a track record of ignoring his constituents in order to advance his party's radical ideology."
Republicans, meanwhile, highlighted Lambert's military record and vowed to put Democrats on the defensive in New Hampshire and across the Northeast.
"Ironically, the Northeast is quickly becoming the road block to a Democrat House majority in 2014," said Andrea Bozek, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "Democrats will have to spend critical resources defending several vulnerable incumbents, and even an open seat, in territory they thought was safe. That's not the playing field you need to gain the 17 seats needed to put Nancy Pelosi back in the Speaker's chair."
Indeed, recent polls suggest that Kuster — in office for less than nine months — is vulnerable, particularly following revelations that she had an unpaid property tax bill soon after taking office. She has since paid the bill and apologized.
Republicans concede they may have a better opportunity to win in New Hampshire's 1st District, where former Republican Rep. Frank Guinta is expected to challenge Rep. Carol Shea-Porter.
They're also eyeing opportunities in Massachusetts's 6th District, where former state Sen. Richard Tisei is expected to run after narrowly losing to incumbent Democrat John Tierney last fall. Additionally, the GOP hopes to compete for Maine's 2nd District, a seat left open by Rep. Mike Michaud's decision to run for governor, and a handful of seats in New York, where recently ousted GOP representatives such as Ann Marie Buerkle and Nan Hayworth are expected to run again.
Democrats insist that they're not worried.
"Republicans can't recruit the type of candidates that could make these seats competitive because no one in their right mind wants to run under the toxic banner of the Republicans in Congress," Brumer said. "Republicans are left with only extreme tea party ideologues, and unqualified, unknown backbench candidates as the only people they can get to run in the Northeast."
Lambert suggests that he's a different kind of candidate.
He served one term in the New Hampshire Senate and did not seek re-election in 2012, citing his plans to return to active duty in the Marine Corps Reserve. Having served three tours of duty, Lambert was forced to retire from the Marine Corps in 2009 along with 98 other colonels, but won reinstatement after suing the government.
He says he opposes abortion rights and gay marriage, but believes the earth's temperature is rising. He also vowed to vote to repeal President Barack Obama's health care overhaul if elected, but would not support a government shutdown to do so.
"We have a tough battle on our hands. And we need to fight back. And that starts by sending fresh troops to Washington," Lambert said. "I want to be part of the new troops sent to Washington by voters, who are willing to take on the big challenges, reject gridlock, and bring the old, 'can do' American spirit back to our nation's capital."