Gizzi on Politics: April 23-27

You Can Still Be Conservative in New Hampshire

“November ’06 was a bad election for Republicans, but it was worse in New Hampshire than in any other state.”

That perceptive post-mortem was given to me by someone who should know: Fergus Cullen, Yale graduate and former editorial page columnist for the New Hampshire Union Leader, who was elected New Hampshire Republican state chairman in January. By defeating two state representatives for the party helm on one ballot of the 480-member GOP state committee, the conservative Cullen became, at 34, one of the youngest state Republican leaders in the U.S.

The obvious question, however, is why does a young man with a great potential in politics want a job akin to re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic? Last fall, New Hampshire Democratic Gov. John Lynch was re-elected by a landslide margin and Democrats won both houses of the state legislature for the first time since the 19th Century. Moreover, the statewide offices of executive councilors (who must approve all gubernatorial appointments) fell under Democratic control and both of New Hampshire’s U.S. House members — Republicans Charles Bass and Jeb Bradley — were unseated by decidedly left-of-center Democrats.

For some of us who remember when conservative stalwarts such as Republican Sen. (1978-90) Gordon Humphrey and GOP Gov. (1992-96) Steve Merrill were elected with ease in New Hampshire, there is definitely something wrong with the current political picture.

“There has been a slow-motion earthquake that has changed the demographics of our state,” Cullen told me, blaming years of migration from neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut for this change. While New Hampshire was a reliably Republican state until the early 1990s, it is now a marginal state in which independents make up about 44% of the electorate and thus determine the swing of political power.

“But don’t think for a minute that Democrats have a ‘lock’ here,” added Cullen, pointing out that Republicans still hold 30% of registered voters and Democrats only 26%. “It all depends on whether we win over the independents.”

Does that mean that Republican candidates must moderate their message, that across-the-board conservatives such as Humphrey, Merrill, and former Sen. (1990-2002) Bob Smith need not apply for Republican nominations? “No, not at all,” Cullen replied, “In fact, at least two key issues of importance to conservatives are out there.”

He was referring to the state’s parental notification bill and the issue of civil unions. New Hampshire has a parental notification law requiring one parent to be informed when a daughter is having an abortion. Democrats in Concord are launching a movement to repeal it. As for civil unions, which have never been an issue in the state before, Democrats in the legislature as well as Gov. Lynch are making a major push to write them into law. In Cullen’s words, “They are probably worried they will never control as much as they do now, so they’re going to do all they can. New Hampshire has never been known to be a laboratory for social experiments, so these issues are going to be remembered.”

What’s Next?

Once talk about the first-in-the-nation presidential primary is over, any political discussion about New Hampshire in ’08 inevitably turns to freshman Republican Sen. John Sununu and his expected tough re-election battle next year. Former Gov. (1996-2002) Jeanne Shaheen lost a tight (51%-to-47%) race to Sununu in ’02 and is being urged by state and national Democrats to try for a rematch against the GOP incumbent next year.

“If she doesn’t run, you can bet that [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman] Chuck Schumer [of New York] will be on the phone to Lynch to run,” Cullen assured me, recalling that governors of his state (one of only two in the nation with two-year terms) don’t usually stay beyond three terms in office.

If Lynch passes on a Senate race and instead seeks a third term as governor, the GOP chairman insisted his party will field a strong contender. Among those being mentioned for the gubernatorial nod are businessman Bruce Keough, who placed second in the ’02 primary for governor, State Sen. Joe Kenney, and Secretary of Health and Human Services John Stephen, whose agency’s budget accounts for about one-third of total state expenditures.

The freshman Democratic House members will both face determined challenges, insists Cullen. In the 1st District (Manchester), former Rep. Bradley (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 71%) is poised for a rematch with ’06 winner Carol Shea-Porter. In the 2nd District (Nashua-Concord), former Rep. Bass (lifetime ACU rating: 70%) has given no clue that he wants to run again and other names are being increasingly mentioned — notably that of State Atty. Gen. Kelly Ayotte, who defended the parental notification law in court — to take on Democratic U.S. Rep Paul Hodes.

“Under the right circumstances, a Republican resurgence is very possible in New Hampshire next year,” said Cullen, “What people forget is that in ’02, we won everything — the governorship, the Senate seat, both seats in Congress, and the legislature — because the independents went with us. Four years later, in part because of national circumstances beyond our control, the independents went against us. Things can change quickly in New Hampshire.”