Gizzi On Politics March 2, 2009

Next in New Hampshire

Withdrawing two weeks ago as President Obama’s nominee to be secretary of Commerce, Sen. Judd Gregg (R.-N.H.) also made it clear he would not seek re-election in 2010. Now the scenario that is already playing out in the other four states in which a GOP senator has said he is calling it quits next year is playing out in the Granite State: Democrats have at least one “name” candidate who begins the race as front-runner, while Republicans scramble to find a fresh contender who could be considered a heavyweight.  

“First right of refusal” is what state Republicans usually say of John E. Sununu these days. The one-term senator (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 92%) lost re-election last year to Democrat Jeanne Shaheen and has since been serving on the board of the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP). His defeat last fall notwithstanding, the son of former New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu, the present state Republican chairman, is probably still known by close to 100% of state voters.  

Two other Republicans now being mentioned are Manchester Mayor Frank Guinta and former Gov. (1992-96) Steve Merrill, who followed the elder Sununu and Gregg in a string of conservative governors that lasted 14 years. Both are considered strong conservatives and Merrill made no bones about his conservative stands on both social and economic issues.  

Although Merrill still remains popular among his party’s conservative grass roots, his problem might well be his absence from politics for more than a decade. Since leaving the governorship and making an unsuccessful bid for Republican national chairman in 1997, Merrill has been working for the Boston-based Bingham Consulting firm and staying off the political radar screen.  

Among Democrats, both of the state’s U.S. representatives are mentioned as Senate possibilities. Second District (Western New Hampshire) Rep. Paul Hodes, in fact, signaled within days of Gregg’s announced exit that he would run. However, the state’s 1st District House member, Democrat Carol Shea-Porter, has more recently indicated her interest in the Senate race.  

At first glance, there is little difference between the Democrats, both of whom came to Congress in ‘06. Both Hodes and Shea-Porter are firmly on the left on most issues (Both have lifetime American Conservative Union ratings of zero). Hodes has a 38% favorable rating statewide and Shea-Porter 37%, according to a University of New Hampshire poll. But while Hodes won his first term as the favorite of the districtwide Democratic leadership, Shea-Porter won by defeating an organization candidate with a campaign she ran out her garage that mobilized pro-abortion, anti-war, and rabidly pro-environment forces.  

Weiser and Wise  

That actually is the new team in charge of the Michigan Republican Party. With State Chairman Saul Anuzis announcing early he would step down to seek the GOP national chairmanship, Water Wonderland GOPers unanimously elected Ann Arbor businessman Ron Weiser as their new party chieftain. The 63-year-old Weiser, one of the top fund-raisers for the state party, was elected without opposition by the nearly 2,500 Republican activists gathered at the Lansing Convention Center last week.  

More dramatic than Weiser’s election was the comeback of fellow conservative Sharon Wise, who was ousted as Republican national committeewoman in 2004 in an intra-party power play. Last week, Wise roared back and won the position of state party co-chairman vacated by Jane Abraham. The wife of former Michigan Sen. and Secretary of Energy Spence Abraham is considered a cinch to become Republican national committeewoman if incumbent Holly Hughes, a state leader in John McCain’s presidential campaign last year, steps down.  

Acknowledging that Michigan Republicans now comprise only 34% of registered voters statewide (down from 44% in ’02) and have suffered two devastating election years in ’06 and ’08, Wise nonetheless insisted to me: “We are poised for a great comeback. People in Michigan are realizing they made a big mistake in re-electing [Democratic Gov. Jennifer] Granholm in ’06 instead of a successful businessman [Republican Richard DeVos]. Ever since the Republican House members in Washington stood together against Obama’s stimulus package, our base has been united. They know who we are and, more importantly, they know who they are.”  

Keeping Up With the Joneses

Earlier this year, I sensed I made I mistake when I included the name of Rep. Walter Jones (R.-N.C.) on a list of possible Republican retirees from the House this year. Although Jones is 66 years old, has served in the House since 1994, and has had his ups and downs with his party’s leadership (notably over the U.S. presence in Iraq), there really was no hard evidence that Jones would call it quits. Last week, the call I had anticipated somewhat nervously came.  

“I’m looking to another term in 2010,” Jones (lifetime ACU rating: 90%) told me, adding that “I wish you had called me” before putting him on the speculative list. Rather than upset, however, Jones was quite convivial as he reviewed some of the issues that have made him a maverick: his stand for withdrawing from Iraq (which once landed North Carolina’s Jones on the cover of the left-wing Mother Jones magazine, his opposition to the Bush Administration’s Prescription Drug Bill and No Child Left Behind federal education program, his fight to guarantee military chaplains can preach without government interference, and his keeping in the news the plight of jailed border guards Ramos and Campeon (whose sentences for shooting a drug dealer who was also an illegal immigrant were commuted by President Bush on his penultimate day in office). Jones is now working on legislation to “clean up the records” of Ramos and Campeon, who remain felons in the eyes of the law. He is also involved in the issue of permitting photographs of the flag-draped coffins of servicemen killed in action being returned to this country when their families desire it.  

“I do what I think is right and sleep soundly every night,” Jones told me. Challenged for renomination last year in a race that focused on the incumbent’s anti-Iraq position, Jones won by a handsome 3-to-2 margin.  

When I noted that Jones’ late father, Democratic Rep. (1965-92) Walter Jones, served in Congress at age 79, Republican Jones replied: “I don’t think I’ll be there that long but I feel great at 66. And he smoked cigarettes and drank scotch. I’ve never smoked and I just like wine.” He closed by noting he was giving up wine for Lent.  

Kansas Wide Open

Conservative stalwart Kris Kobach’s final act as Republican state chairman of Kansas was to cast a vote for a new national chairman at the winter meeting of the Republican National Committee. In leaving the party helm, the law school professor, onetime assistant to former U.S. Atty. Gen. (2001-04) John Ashcroft and expert on illegal immigration, plans to run for secretary of state next year. Kobach was succeeded as chairman by the more moderate Amanda Adkins, a former top aide to Sen. Sam Brownback (R.-Kan.).  

Not only is the secretary of state’s office open (incumbent Republican Ron Thornburgh is running for governor), but for the first time in 16 years, every major statewide office in the Sunflower State is open. Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is “termed out” after eight years and may very well be named Health and Human Services secretary by Obama. Although there is no major Democratic contender for governor so far, Thornburgh and retiring Sen. Sam Brownback are vying for the GOP nod. Brownback’s retirement from the Senate means a spirited primary for his seat between Republican Representatives Todd Tiahrt and Jerry Moran. Democratic Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson, a onetime Republican state chairman, is stepping down. There were vacancies in the offices of state attorney general and treasurer (Republican Lynn Jenkins was elected to Congress last year) that Sebelius had to fill with stop-gap appointees.