CONCORD - Questions about who's "in" and who's "out" when it comes to running for state office soon will be answered, as the Secretary of State's filing period for candidates in the state Primary Election starts on Wednesday and continues through June 13.
The Sept. 9 primary is shaping up to be a mostly Republican affair, with contested races for GOP nominations at every level, from Senator, to Congress, to governor, to Executive Council to the state Legislature.
A hotly contested U.S. Senate primary at the top of the GOP ballot is already drawing significant interest, although turnout for primary elections in New Hampshire and elsewhere historically has been very low compared to the general election in the fall.
"I try not to ever share conversations I have with candidates about their intentions before they declare," said GOP chair Jennifer Horn. "All I would say about that is, by the end of the filing period, we will see what our full slate of candidates is going to be."
For registered Democrats, this primary season could be a real snoozer, with no challengers to any incumbents likely on either the Senate or the House side, and none at the top of the ticket, according to Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley.
The only primary battle among Democrats to emerge so far is for the Executive Council seat in District 5 being vacated by Debora Pignatelli of Nashua.
Jennifer Daler of Temple, who served as a state representative from 2006-08 and from 2011-12, and Nashua Alderman-at-Large Diane Sheehan, are both in the running, and both pledge to sustain Pignatelli's passionate support for commuter rail service.
The likely Republican in that race, former District 5 Executive Councilor David Wheeler of Milford, is facing at least one and possibly two primary opponents. While in office, Wheeler voted against commuter rail expansion from Massachusetts into southern New Hampshire.
No other candidates have announced ahead of the filing period, but recruiting by both parties is heating up as all candidates are required to file by June 13 whether or not they face primary opposition.
The tea party-style Republican Liberty Caucus of New Hampshire has pledged to endorse candidates and campaign for 20 seats in the 24-seat state Senate, but so far has announced only a handful.
"It's always the most exciting period every two years, when talking to candidates about running for office and encouraging them to file for one office or another," said Buckley. "This is what makes democracy work, making sure there are good challengers for all offices."
While Democrats believe their unity going into the general election will benefit their candidates, Republicans say the host of primary contests among GOP contenders will work to their advantage.
"The Democrats tend not to have primaries," said Republican State Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, now in his sixth term representing Manchester's Ward 8. "There's some debate as to whether or not that's a good thing. I believe competition gets the vote out in the primary and people who vote in the primary are more likely to vote in the general election."
Candidates who have won a primary come into the general election with momentum on their side, he said. "It makes you sharpen your campaign and focus."
Democrats see some wounded GOP primary winners limping into the general election. "We are a united party under the leadership of Gov. Hassan and Sen. Shaheen," said Buckley. "We don't have the very, very deep split that goes on within the Republican Party between the tea party and establishment factions."
All of the 11 Democrats in the 24-seat Senate are standing for reelection, and none faces a primary challenge, which Buckley says gives the party a reasonable shot at gaining a majority. On the Republican side, at least three incumbent senators are stepping down and one or two more may follow.
"We start with the foundation of the 11 incumbents running again," said Buckley. "And you have the open seat in District 8 (where incumbent Republican Sen. Bob Odell is retiring), which is a Democratic-leaning district. That gets us to 12. Then we just have to win one or two of the half a dozen strong challenges we will field."
That assumes that all 11 incumbent Democrats will be reelected. Republicans see real opportunities to build on their 13-seat Senate majority and to retake the House in what some think looks like a wave year for the GOP.
"Primary turnout is driven by the number of candidates running," said Vaillancourt. "Republicans have two for governor, two for Congress, four for Senate, along with Executive Council races and state Senate races. You'll see extraordinarily high turnout for Republicans and extraordinarily low turnout for Democrats, and that sets things up for November."
"Extraordinarily high" is a relative term, since primary elections historically attract very low turnout no matter how many contested races are on the ballot.
In the Sept. 11, 2012 primary, Republicans cast 111,606 ballots compared to 87,247 ballots on the Democratic side in a year with a contested Democratic primary for governor. In the 2012 general election, with a Presidential race topping the ballot, 718,700 New Hampshire voters went to the polls in a 70-percent turnout.
New Hampshire is one of the states that allows voters to cast ballots in whatever primary they think is most interesting. Independents, or non-declared voters, can choose the primary they want to vote in. "Undeclared" is the most popular form of registration in the state.
As of January, the state had 236,774 registered Democrats, 261,846 registered Republicans and 372,009 undeclared, for a total of 870,629 registered voters.
If any Democrats want to vote in the Republican primary, or vice versa, they have until Tuesday to change their affiliation to undeclared. Soon after that, months of speculation about who is going to run and who is going to retire will finally come to an end.
This year's election is expected to be expensive for campaigns.
Democrat Jeanne Shaheen's seat in the U.S. Senate is one both parties are prepared to spend big on in order to claim.
Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, estimated the overall spending in the Senate campaign could be around $45 million, possibly even $50 million if it is still a tight race as the election gets closer.
Scala said he based the total on Shaheen's 2008 campaign spending against John E. Sununu, which totaled around $37 million. He said $17 million came from the candidates and $20 million came from outside groups such as the national party and political action committees.
Republicans are lining up to endorse Scott Brown, who still has to get through the GOP primary but is already being touted in TV ad campaigns as the challenger, despite opposition from former U.S. Sen. Bob Smith, former state Sen. Jim Rubens and conservative activist Karen Testerman.
"Brown is a proven fundraiser. Shaheen is the incumbent and she's no slouch at fundraising, either," Scala said.
Scala expects the Senate candidates to spend $20 million combined, with another $25 million to $30 million to come from the outside.
Scala said he had not yet crunched numbers for the two races for New Hampshire's seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, but expects a lot of outside support for Democratic incumbents Carol Shea-Porter and Ann Kuster, as well as their Republican challengers.
"Certainly both Congressional races are on the competitive list," Scala said. "That's a relative rarity these days in House elections."
Reporter Doug Alden contributed to this story.