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Ready for a comeback?
2012 is looking brighter for Democrats but do they have the support and the candidates to pull off a comeback?

05/19/11



The crowd chanted “’04, ’06, ’08, ’10, we want John Lynch back again!” at the Puritan Conference Center in Manchester. It was election night, November 2010, a dark night for Democrats, but it was another bright night for Gov. John Lynch.

Lynch had withstood a withering assault from opponent John Stephen as well as outside groups during the 2010 campaign. Lynch dished it out pretty well himself. (Republicans charged he was too personal in his attacks.) In a year when very few Democrats were left standing, Lynch was standing strong.

Democrats are likely hoping Lynch is willing to stand up one more time, because, as the most popular politician in the state, he’s the closest thing to a trump card Democrats have.

It’s going to be an uphill battle for New Hampshire Democrats between now and 2012. But analysts agree there appears to be a window of opportunity for Democrats in New Hampshire. The question is how well-suited they will be, in message and in numbers, to exploit it.

More change, again

“Elections are ultimately about choices,” said Steve Marchand, former Portsmouth mayor and a man who gets plenty of attention as a prospective Democratic candidate. “And the actions of most House Republicans are providing an opportunity for Democrats to give a positive alternative choice to voters.”

But Marchand said Democrats must do more than merely be “not them.” A message of simply being against the other party doesn’t often result in maximum success, he said.

“I really believe that the voters last November did try to send a message and the message is they expect more on their investment on whatever the level of spending is,” Marchand said.

Republicans won so many seats in 2010 that it’s difficult to find prominent Democratic voices. There’s Lynch, of course, but most seem to agree he kind of hums to the beat of his own drum and isn’t necessarily looking to lead the party, or at least not to lay out its message. Lynch is very much his own brand as a politician, as evidenced by his victory in 2010 when no other Democrat won major office in the state. He talks about putting politics to one side, and that approach seems to work.

Political analyst Dean Spiliotes said the feeling now is that Democrats are cautiously hopeful they’ll pick up some seats in the next election. With voters swaying so hard to the right in 2010, it would seem Democrats would have to pick up at least some seats. Even in a Democratic wave year in 2008, Republicans picked up seats on the Democrats in the state House of Representatives in New Hampshire.

“I think we are sort of in an extreme period of volatility,” Spiliotes said. “I do expect some swinging but I’m not ready to predict a wave election. Nobody should feel comfortable or settled, nor should Democrats feel as pessimistic as they did six months ago. I expect some movement back toward the center, but I’m not sure how much.”

“All else being equal, Democrats should gain back at least some of those seats that they’ve lost,” said Dante Scala, a UNH political science professor. “When you look at the makeup of the state, in terms of voter registration....”

Demographers at the University of New Hampshire say the state has been growing more Democratic as left-leaning voters move in and conservative voters move out. But the state’s voter makeup is pretty balanced: 30 percent Republican, 30 percent Democrat and 40 percent independent. The middle ground and the energy of each base wins the day. In 2006 the state saw an enormous shift toward Democrats. Even though Democrats were extremely successful at the top of the ticket, 2008 was a bit of a correction in favor of Republicans in New Hampshire at the bottom of the ticket, as the GOP gained back state legislature seats.

“Republicans who think they can win an election when they only appeal to their base are bad at math,” said former state GOP chairman Fergus Cullen. “The same thing is true for Democrats. Forty percent of voters in New Hampshire are independents, who have shown a huge propensity to swing drastically in recent elections. I suspect the pendulum will continue to be in motion for some time. When Democrats said New Hampshire had fundamentally changed, I didn’t believe it then, and it’s clearly not true now. At the same time, if Republicans feel the opposite has happened, they’re making the same mistake. New Hampshire hasn’t suddenly turned into a very conservative state. It’s one that reacted to the excesses of the Obama administration. So both sides still need to appeal to centrist voters who swing, and I think Republicans are doing that right now. If they lose sight of that, then they put their majorities at risk.”

Republican extremism?
Democrats will need to make the case that Republican leadership in New Hampshire and nationally has been more extreme than voters wanted, Spiliotes said.

“I think on some level there is starting to be some tension within the [Republican] party, about the direction of the leadership, that maybe things have gone a little too far,” Spiliotes said. “Basically Democrats want to exploit that....”

Scala also said Democrats will likely play the extremism card in hopes voters, particularly independents, will sway back to them.
But Republicans aren’t so sure they’ve taken things too far to the right.

“The process of watching the sausage getting made is sometimes ugly, but the sausage tastes really good,” Cullen said. “The policy outcomes of the Republican majority in Concord have been very good, even if the process occasionally made some people wince a little bit.”

Simply put, Republicans in the legislature are doing what they were elected to do last fall; they are shrinking government and they’re cutting spending, Cullen said. While Democrats will try to paint it as though the GOP has gone too far, Cullen didn’t think that was reality.

Democrats have certainly got the memo with regard to the extremism argument.

“I think the people of New Hampshire are rejecting [House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon] and his reckless Republican agenda that has clearly overreached,” said Michael Brunelle, executive director of the state Democratic Party. He added Republican leadership has misled voters from campaign promises of creating jobs and moving the economy forward.

Brunelle charged that Republicans have introduced legislation that would have dramatically reduced education funding, potentially ended kindergarten, allowed guns in courthouses, stripped rights away from women, and downshifted funding from the state to communities.

“You can see the evidence that people are really souring,” Brunelle said. He referred to a Public Policy Poll that he said found if the election were held today, Democrats would take back the House and the Senate. “UNH just came out with a poll. Independents and Democrats are souring on the direction of the state. We’re headed down the wrong path.”

“Gov. Lynch’s approval rating is around 70 percent and Bill O’Brien and Republicans are not going to admit their agenda is out of touch,” Brunelle said. “It’s special interest, right wing, extremist. They don’t want to admit that it’s not what people want.”

“The Democrats look very moderate and responsible in comparison to extreme, harsh, and unnecessary legislation being pushed by the far right,” said Debora Pignatelli, a Democrat who lost her seat on the executive council when it went all Republican in 2010, in an e-mail. Budget cuts of programs that have taken decades to develop for the good of our state are unwise and unpopular, she wrote. She also said Democrats, while in the leadership, were sensitive to needed cuts, low taxes, good government, public safety and public interest programs.

“The Republicans have veered far to the right, and it is not selling well at all,” Pignatelli added.

Cullen thinks the current GOP majorities are comparable to the Democratic majorities of four years ago, with the difference that Democrats probably never expected to be in the majority, while Republicans did. But when Democrats had control, there were lots of new members who were extremely ideological in their approaches to governing, “and maybe with unrealistic expectations to how the process works,” he said.

Democrats passed legislation that legalized same-sex marriage  — that might have been easier to paint as extremist for the GOP, just as repealing it would have played into the extremist argument for Democrats. That the GOP has so far stayed away from that shows a certain level of pragmatism, Cullen said. “Maybe there will be in the future, but that was one of the first things Democrats did when they had the majority,” Cullen said.

“The vast majority of the public doesn’t pay attention to the day-by-day battles in Concord,” Cullen said. “There have been some low moments in terms of public relations — that’s always the case. It was with Democrats four years ago. They had very ideological new members with little to no experience who were interested in things like the balloon ban.” (He said the balloon ban was a bill that would have fined people if children accidentally released helium-filled balloons.) “Both sides have their nuts and ill-considered pieces of legislation.”

Are Republicans going too far with their legislative agenda and opening the door for Democrats?

“I suspect what they think is that this is their chance to reshape the state,” Scala said. “Opportunities like this don’t come along very often and they’re going to take full advantage of it. A lot of them were elected or they feel they were elected with a clear set of ideological principles. Now whether that’s true or not, that’s tough to say. … I think a lot of state legislators on the state representative side, because they have that clear set of ideological principles, they’re determined to carry those out.”

There is risk with that approach, namely that the susceptible middle ground of New Hampshire voters don’t align themselves with the far right or the far left. And in a state where Democrats and Republicans are more or less even, that middle ground is going to carry the day, analysts say.

Other factors
There does appear to be some conflict between the two houses of the state legislature. It’s normal that the Senate would be a more moderate body than the House. So far, the Senate has served to tone down some of the House’s legislation, and it seems to have done so amicably.

Despite heavy Republican majorities, Marchand said he thought most people are still somewhat skeptical of both parties.

“I think there’s an opening a mile wide for either political party to show how they’ll deliver efficient, responsive, transparent government at a price the taxpayers can afford,” Marchand said.

Marchand said he thought House Republicans in particular were providing an opportunity for Democrats to provide a “powerful contrast” in the next election.

Back in 2010, the tea party movement was almost certainly a net positive for Republicans as it provided new energy, Marchand said. There are questions now as to how positive the tea party influence would be in New Hampshire.

“We need to return moderation to both houses and in Washington,” Brunelle said.

“I don’t think tea partiers are monolithic,” Marchand said. “I think there is a tremendous difference between them on social issues. I do believe many people both in and out of the tea party are very sensitive to politics that are fiscally conservative. … Most tea partiers are open to candidates on either side of the aisle who can provide a return on their investment at a time of limited resources.”

State Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, argued that Republicans aren’t delivering on their campaign promises of job creation and economic recovery.

“They’re delving into social issues,” D’Allesandro said, adding that provides an opportunity for Democrats.

Gun legislation, where people could carry a weapon without a permit, is the type of legislation that would energize the Democratic base, D’Allesandro said. “Any sensible human recognizes that’s a bad situation,” D’Allesandro said, adding budget cuts that would result in reduced services for children will also stimulate a strong response from the Democratic base.

If the extremism card isn’t working and if the economy is still tanking, Democrats are also going to hope that there will be some sort of regression to the mean, that 2010 was an exceptional year, Scala said. “And that 2012 will be more of a normal year.”

“I think the pendulum is always in motion in politics,” Cullen said. “In that sense, it seems unlikely Republicans are going to retain as large majorities as they have right now, but that’s because they’re historically huge. It’s not necessarily the fault of Republicans.”
Democrats will need some help to make a comeback in the Granite State, but there are factors that aren’t really in their control, like the economy and whoever the eventual Republican nominee for president is.

And there are national tides, which move opinions in New Hampshire. Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget plan, which calls for privatizing Medicare, could stir the voter anxiety pot in Democrats’ favor, analysts said. The death of Osama bin Laden is certainly a notch in President Barack Obama’s belt but Republicans will likely try to shift the debate. It’s difficult to tell what kind of long-term impact it could have in the election, Spiliotes said, though it certainly paints the picture of Obama as decisive and tough.

Top of the ticket
A presidential year brings in more casual voters, those who are less ideologically motivated than in a primary or midterm election. There are big questions as to whether Obama can draw in independent voters at the same clip as in 2008. Since his election, independent voters have been moving in a Republican direction, analysts said.

The big question for Republicans is who will  be at the top of their ticket. If it’s a candidate like Mitt Romney, that could be good news for Republicans in New Hampshire, where he or a candidate in his mold would be fairly successfulm, Scala expects. A nominee like Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich might not fare as well in New Hampshire, and that could hurt Republicans down the ticket, Scala said

“If you get one of those candidates, New Hampshire is not going to be part of their equation for victory,” Scala said. “There’s just so much we don’t know right now.”

“Then you’ve got potential for a significant correction up and down the ticket against Republicans,” Scala said. “If Obama faces off against someone who doesn’t do well nationally, then you could see reverberations up and down the ticket. The bottom is especially vulnerable to the weather at the top of the ticket. That’s a key question and that’s something party elites like [Ray Buckley, state Democratic Party chairman] are watching in terms of recruitment.”

Recruitment brings major questions. After the shellacking Democrats took in 2010, party officials could have difficulty getting candidates to step up. It would be a much easier sell for Democratic officials in New Hampshire if the GOP presidential nominee weren’t to play so well in the Granite State. A Southern, socially conservative nominee might do well nationally but probably not in New Hampshire, Scala said.

“Lots of times potential Democratic candidates for state Senate and the state House are looking at how Obama’s doing,” Scala said.

So high gas prices, a continued down economy, and Obama trailing the GOP nominee in New Hampshire — that’s going to make it difficult to recruit candidates and convince them they can buck the tide, especially if they’re trying to run for seats they just lost, Scala said.

And under those conditions, Obama could be the GOP’s greatest political asset.

“As long as President Bush was in the White House, Democrats still had a rallying point,” Cullen said.

Democrats are likely to see a more advantageous demographic mix in 2012 than they saw in the 2010 midterm elections. There would presumably be more younger voters and more minority voters — both tend to benefit the political left. Midterm elections tend to have more conservative and older voters, Spiliotes said.

With Obama on the ticket, 2012 will likely draw out minority voters, such as Latinos and African-Americans, though the turnout for both of those probably won’t be as robust as it was in 2008. “Just because the magic is gone a little,” Spiliotes said. “But any change in the voter mix is likely a benefit for Democrats.”

Getting in early
Recent polls by the UNH Survey Center suggest Rep. Charlie Bass and Rep. Frank Guinta are dropping in favorability ratings. Ann McLane Kuster, who narrowly lost to Bass in 2010, has already announced she’s running again. That was expected. Kuster was the presumptive favorite in the 2nd District and now she can shadow Bass’s every move.

Former Rep. Carol Shea-Porter also announced she’ll run against Guinta again. Guinta beat her handily in 2010 after Shea-Porter had served two terms. That Shea-Porter is running probably isn’t surprising, but Spiliotes wondered if the enthusiasm for Shea-Porter was still there. He suggested as much on his blog (www.nhpoliticalcapital.com) and did get some push back from Democrats, he said. Still, Shea-Porter already has a primary challenge from Portsmouth businesswoman Joanne Dowdell.
“Even though Kuster lost, you saw agreement on both sides of the aisle that she ran an effective campaign for her first time out,” Scala said, adding Bass’s performance wasn’t strong enough that he would be able to “dare off” competitors. “I fully expect national Democrats will look at that race long and hard and that they’ll be willing to support Kuster, especially if she’s able to raise money as well as they did last time around. I think she would discourage other Democrats from running.”

The feeling is that Kuster deserves another shot, particularly since the Republican wave was as high as it was and she still nearly won. Still, Kuster is not a conservative Democrat by any stretch, though the 2nd District is much more liberal than the 1st District, Scala said.

“Bass is going to have to live now with those series of votes that he’s cast in the House,” Scala said. “Certainly we’ll see Kuster talk about the Paul Ryan budget, its potential effects on Medicare. In some ways Kuster will be in a better position than she was in 2010, because she’ll be able to pick on some of Bass’s votes in the House.”

“If Obama is reasonably strong in New Hampshire, it should be especially so in the 2nd District,” Scala added.

The road isn’t as clear for Shea-Porter. Dowdell didn’t waste any time in announcing she would challenge Shea-Porter in the primary. It remains to be seen what kind of challenge Dowdell can mount against a well-known candidate with an established grassroots network.

Shea-Porter said the 2010 election, and the results for Democrats, were tied to the bad economy and how desperate people were for jobs. She said Republicans in Washington played on that fear and promised to create jobs, and subsequently, voters gave Republicans a chance. But, Shea-Porter said, there hasn’t been a single jobs bill and instead Republicans are talking about privatizing Medicare and Social Security.

“They’re focused not on the middle class, but on protecting the oil companies and the very wealthy,” Shea-Porter said. “They gave tax cuts again to the richest corporations and individuals in this country. I think that’s going to change the tide....”

Shea-Porter, who said she’s planning to spend plenty of time talking to Democrats, independents and Republicans leading up to the election, is expecting to be talking about jobs again, along with Medicare and Social Security — middle-class issues.

“Who is the alternative?” Scala said of Shea-Porter. “Who can put together a campaign that can win the primary and the general election?”

Still, there is real potential for an interesting primary in the 1st District.

“That could be the most interesting game in town if Lynch runs for another term,” Scala said.

Lynch, and who else?
But beyond Kuster and Shea-Porter, it’s not clear where Democrats turn. Following the 2008 elections, Republicans, amid talk of a need to re-brand, repeatedly said they had a deep bench to fall back on. That proved true in 2010. Democrats don’t appear to have a similar lineup waiting.

For Democrats, the big question is still Lynch — will he or won’t he run? His favorability remains high, even higher than it was six to eight months ago. If he doesn’t run, finding a viable alternative could prove difficult for Democrats.

“The bench was so decimated in the last election,” Spiliotes said. “I think it will take a while to shake out. There just aren’t a lot left. It’s always tougher to bounce back once you’ve been defeated.”

“When your party is out of power, which obviously Democrats are, it always looks weaker,” Marchand said. “And when you’re in power, it always looks stronger. In terms of our bench … Democrats in 2012, both in New Hampshire and nationally, must present an authentic and passionate vision of delivering results in an era of limited resources, and government that crosses party lines.”

“If we put up Democratic candidates with strong records of fiscal conservatism and an ability to focus on results, I think that gives us the best chance of success in 2012,” Marchand added.

Republicans have got to be concerned by the possibility that Lynch could run again, especially since he’d run, as always, as a centrist, analysts said. “He might be able to carry in more of those Democrats under his centrist banner,” Scala said. “There would be concern in that respect.”

Cullen said Lynch has been able to triangulate politically between the left wing, which wants a broad-based income tax, and conservative majorities in the legislature.

“Gov. Lynch may have little power, but politically, he’s still in a pretty good place to be,” Cullen said. “Not policy-wise, but politically.”
But if Lynch doesn’t run again, the list of potential candidates isn’t long, at least at the moment. Former senator Maggie Hassan is a name to watch, as could be D’Allesandro. The longtime Manchester senator has strong fundraising potential and isn’t an advocate for an income or sales tax. He’s also given no indication he’d be interested in a run.

“I’ve run for governor twice, and you know, I love the Senate,” D’Allesandro said. “I love where I am, my family likes where I am and that’s the most important thing for me.”

D’Allesandro said there are plenty of good potential candidates out there on the Democratic side, many of whom are younger and energetic. “We’ve got to find those candidates,” D’Allesandro said.

Marchand is another possibility. He’s a bit of an unknown. A savvy political operative, Marchand would probably take a stance as a fiscal conservative and a social moderate, much like Lynch, Scala said.

“I’m keeping my options very open for 2012, but I won’t make any kind of public decision for some time,” Marchand said.
It would be ideal, naturally, if Democrats could recruit a self-funder to run. Stonyfield Yogurt CE-YO Gary Hirschberg comes to mind, though he seems to come from the more progressive wing of the party, Scala said.

“Gov. John Lynch is the most popular politician in the state of New Hampshire,” Scala said. “He survived the blitzkrieg last year. It was such a severe undertow for all Democrats where so many Democrats were washed out to sea. He survived. He had a ton of ads dumped on him to boot, not just by John Stephen but outside sources. He really took a lot of punishment and he weathered it just fine. I’m sure Democrats would love to have Lynch on the ticket one more time.”

Hassan is often talked about as a candidate for higher office, including Congress and the governor’s office. But she just lost in her reelection bid in the state senate, and it’s more difficult to make your case when you’re coming off a defeat — not impossible, but not easy.

Former congressman Paul Hodes is worth noting as well. He lost badly to Sen. Kelly Ayotte in the general election last November. He’s got the name recognition to mount a campaign, but it’s difficult to see where he runs — if he even wants to. It would appear unlikely he would challenge Kuster in a primary for his old seat.

Almost immediately after her defeat in 2010, Pignatelli hinted to supporters she’d show up on a ballot again. Her comments earlier this week were consistent. “Democrats have a deep bench with numerous candidates ready to run again to bring back responsible leadership to New Hampshire,” Pignatelli wrote. “I am one of them.”

Will Ovide carry the day for Republicans?
Republicans seem to have a slew of candidates to choose from for governor, starting with Ovide Lamontagne, who was reborn politically after he narrowly lost to Ayotte in the Senate primary in 2010 and then immediately threw his support behind her.

“He’s been bitten by the bug,” Spiliotes said. “He was too close to that Senate seat.”

Stephen, who gave Lynch a run for his money last year, is another possibility, though he would go into his next race as a three-time loser. Analysts also mentioned Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, as someone to watch in the gubernatorial race.

Lamontagne all but announced he would run in 2012 during a rally earlier this month. It’s unusual to see a politician’s stature raised so much after losing, but he made a lot of friends in how he graciously threw his support behind Ayotte, Scala said. Since his loss, Lamontagne has done a good job of keeping himself in the public eye. He was featured in stories on Politico and in the New York Times for his role so far in the Republican presidential primary — candidates have made his Manchester home a stop on their visits.

“I think in a primary, you’d at least give him the edge,” Scala said.

“You could make the argument that regardless of his popularity he’s still very conservative on issues like abortion that won’t necessarily play that well in a general election, especially against someone like a Lynch,” Scala said. “If Lynch isn’t there, it’s easier to make the case for Lamontagne’s electability.”

In the 1990s, Lamontagne didn’t come close in his run against Jeanne Shaheen. The state is still fiscally conservative and socially moderate, Scala said.

“Will the stars be aligned in 2012 as they were in 2010?” Scala said. “If it had been Lamontagne against Paul Hodes, I’m convinced we would be talking about Senator Lamontagne. That was 2010. This is a presidential year. There’ll be much greater turnout. That’s a whole different animal.”

Getting the message out
Brunelle rejected the idea that Democrats haven’t been effectively getting their message out. “I think if you look at any news publicationS, newspapers, television, we’re getting our message out,” Brunelle said.

Brunelle said Democrats want to bring common sense and a “voice of moderation” to Concord — that “common sense” phrase was more often being used by Republicans the last two years. 

“I think the vision is one of fiscal responsibility with a relentless focus on outcomes at a time of limited resources,” Marchand said. “I would argue there is a climate of entrepreneurism. It’s about focusing on outcomes and entrepreneurism.”
Economic and fiscal issues carried the day in 2010, and Marchand suspected they would again in 2012.

“People are concerned largely about the size and scope of government spending, they’re concerned with job creation, and that’s why I think entrepreneurism is such an important part of what the policies need to include,” Marchand said. “That’s true for both parties. I think the issues that are going to remain for some time are the budget, fiscal responsibility and the size and scope of government.”

D’Allesandro was confident the Democratic message would resonate in the next election.

“I think the first thing you point out, without any hesitation at all, is what’s happened over the last two years, nationally and in the state,” D’Allesandro said. “The government is being destroyed, government services are being destroyed. Things people need are disappearing…. As a result of that, nobody wins.”

D’Allesandro said he thought public sentiment was starting to shift back in Democrats’ favor.

“Once people realize what’s happening, when they realize all of the things, all of the nonsense with the cuts, sending things back to the local level, to the local property tax level, decreases in services at the local level, there are certain things government has to do, and we need to find the resources to take care of those things,” D’Allesandro said.

Gearing up
In 2010, Republicans were extremely energized. Their party had taken big hits in the previous two elections in the Granite State. Now it’s Democrats who have to come from behind.

“I’m expecting a great year for Democrats,” Shea-Porter said of New Hampshire in particular. “Because of the kinds of bills New Hampshire state Republicans and federal Republicans have been proposing.... They have certainly overstepped. They also have not been proposing any legislation to help the middle class. It’s like whose side are they on and whose side are the Democrats on?”
Brunelle said the base is energized and ready to go this time around: “People want to start campaigning now.”






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