‘How are you doing? Welcome,” says Corky Messner, candidate in the GOP Senate primary in New Hampshire, at a recent campaign event. He’s perched on the edge of a stool, in front of the fireplace at the Abenaki Ski Lodge in Wolfeboro, N.H. About 15 or so Granite Staters, mostly retirees, are sitting in front of him on leather couches. But he’s talking specifically to the young woman who has just arrived, about five minutes into Corky’s opening statement, and taken up a position in the back of the room, holding up her iPhone to videotape his town-hall-style campaign event. “She’s my friend who tracks me,” he says.
This is New Hampshire, and we like to call our politicians by their first name, even though Corky’s first name is actually Bryant. “Corky’s a nickname my parents gave me,” he says. “I don’t know why.” A graduate of West Point, and a former Army Ranger who served in Europe during the Cold War, Corky is a corporate attorney whose law firm, Messner Reeves LLP, has offices in nine states. “A lot of the time, across the table from me was the government, the Justice Department. So I’ve dealt with them. I know what it’s like to negotiate with the bureaucrats in Washington.” He speaks confidently about issues related to business, the economy, and litigation. The growing national debt is a huge concern, he says. “Fundamentally, my principles are fiscal responsibility, limited government, accountability, and a strong defense. And to preserve for everybody, my kids, your kids, everybody in New Hampshire, the opportunity to live the American dream.”
At 63, Corky is a political neophyte, so what made him decide to get into the race for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Democratic senator, and former three-term governor, Jeanne Shaheen? “I’m not the retiring type,” he says. “So I started thinking about getting into politics. And I decided that, with what’s going on in this country politically — the strong movement of Democrats toward socialism, the progressive movement — I needed to jump into the fray and fight that battle for individual liberty and economic freedom.”
“He understands the American dream,” says state representative Glenn Cordelli, the assistant Republican leader in the New Hampshire House. Glenn has endorsed Corky and lauds in particular Corky’s rise from a lower-middle-class family to become a successful businessman.
On the issues of the Second Amendment and life, Corky is pro-, on both. Attending the March for Life years ago was a powerful experience for him. On the other hand, he told a similar gathering of Republicans in Dublin, N.H., in December that he would not support overturning Roe v. Wade — in his view, it is a legitimate precedent. He can’t remember whether he’s an NRA member but asks one of his campaign aides to check and says he has lots of guns, in any case.
As a veteran, Corky has a lot to say about the Department of Veteran Affairs and its shortcomings. He supports President Trump’s reforms. He also thinks the opioid crisis is the biggest problem facing New Hampshire currently.
Corky has handed off all his business responsibilities in order to focus on his campaign. “I don’t sleep much,” he says. “I will outwork anybody.” However, “one thing I need to do more is work out,” he adds. “I need to drop some LBs.” He smiles as people laugh. He’s tall and broad-shouldered, and you can see how he was a Ranger in his younger years, despite his gut.
“I’m not a career politician. When you own a large firm, that’s a lot of power. I’m not going to Washington to gain power. I don’t need to go to Washington to enrich my family members.” Later in the evening, he spends a good ten minutes talking about what he believes to have been the corrupt dealings of Joe Biden and his son Hunter. “Read the New Yorker article on Hunter. And The New Yorker is friendly to the Left. But there are a lot of facts in there that will astonish you.”
The campaign tracker videotaping from the back is a sign that the New Hampshire Democratic party takes Corky seriously enough to try to catch him in a campaign-ending gaffe. The Democrats have also made an issue of the fact that Corky is not from New Hampshire originally (he was born in Altoona, Pa.) and owns property in other states.
When asked about it, Corky says, “I’ve had all kinds of hometowns. I love New Hampshire. I will be here forever. I don’t know what rule book says ‘You can only call this place your hometown.’” He adds that he first came to New Hampshire over 40 years ago to help a friend close up a camp for the winter in the shadow of Mount Monadnock, and that he bought his home in Wolfeboro over 13 years ago and has been active in local issues. “My heart is here, my soul is here. My kids know that when I pass, my ashes go on the bay of Lake Wentworth.”
According to a 2016 study by University of New Hampshire, just one-third of Granite State residents were born here (Shaheen herself was born in Missouri), so the “out of state” criticism might not work. In 2014, Shaheen narrowly defeated former senator Scott Brown, who was seeking a return to the Senate from New Hampshire after losing his 2012 reelection to Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts.
“I think Jeanne Shaheen’s hometown is Washington, D.C.,” quips Corky. “Eleven years there.”
Hometowns aside, defeating the incumbent senator will be difficult for any Republican. The other candidates currently are retired brigadier general Don Bolduc and aformer speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, Bill O’Brien. Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s 2016 campaign manager, spent half of 2019 teasing a Senate run before announcing at the end of December that he would not enter the race. Corey’s “Will I or won’t I?” routine caused problems for the declared candidates, with Don (our Don — the general) telling a crowd of Carroll County Republicans last fall that he thought his fundraising, after starting well in June, had dried up because donors were waiting for Corey to make a decision.
Corky jump-started his campaign last September with a million dollars of his own money and a strong third quarter fundraising effort brought in an additional $220,000 from outside sources. However, fundraising fell to $51,000 in the fourth quarter, with Corky lending the campaign an extra $200,000.
The Messner for Senate campaign tells me that they made a tactical decision to prioritize the candidate meeting voters rather than fundraising at the end of the year. This was, as the campaign puts it, partly because fundraising is “always difficult” during the holiday season and partly because they decided to spend money upfront to raise the first-time candidate’s name recognition with voters. Corky’s been following a strict two-hours-a-day fundraising schedule since the start of the year.
According to the latest campaign finance disclosures, as reported at OpenSecrets.org, the Messner campaign entered 2020 with over a million dollars cash on hand. This far surpasses Corky’s Republican opponents. As of December 31, the general had $114,000 on hand, while Bill O’Brien, who scored an endorsement from Ted Cruz last fall, had just $46,000 on hand.
Corky’s war chest is still far short of what any candidate will need to compete in the general election. In 2016, the state’s other Democratic senator, Maggie Hassan, defeated the incumbent Republican, Kelly Ayotte, by 1,017 votes while spending $18.6 million to Kelly’s $16 million. Meanwhile, outside groups on both sides spent a combined $93.4 million in the state that year. For the 2020 cycle, Shaheen’s campaign has raised $7.7 million, and $2 million just in the fourth quarter of 2020.
There’s been no polling done on either the GOP primary or any potential matchups with Shaheen, but Michael Graham, a seasoned political observer who runs NHJournal.com, predicts that “unless Shaheen does something massively out of character, she’ll be reelected without much of a sweat.”
After the event in Wolfeboro, the woman with the iPhone slips out as Corky takes a group photo with attendees and samples treats supplied by a local deli.
He’s got a long path ahead of him, to the primary in September and possibly the general election in November, but he says he’s enjoying himself. “I like it. I really, really like it.”