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Capital Beat: How Northern Pass could help decide state Senate race

  • The State House dome as seen on March 5, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ



Monitor staff
Saturday, October 15, 2016

Northern Pass isn’t on the ballot this year. But a state Senate race in the 1st District will help gauge whether North Country furor over the transmission project has died down six years after it was first proposed.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn faces a challenge from Dolly McPhaul, an underdog candidate who has built a name in the state with her spirited opposition to the controversial transmission project. 

McPhaul unexpectedly defeated state Rep. Leon Rideout in the Republican primary. And her race against Woodburn is more competitive than anticipated, residents say, a testament to voter frustration over the proposed transmission line. 

District 1 stretches from Pittsburg to Thornton, and includes a large chunk of the proposed Northern Pass route. Residents there have argued the project would mar natural landscapes and depress property values. 

McPhaul disputes the notion that she’s a single-issue candidate, but most residents came to know the Sugar Hill resident for her anti-Northern Pass views.

Democrats say it’s unlikely McPhaul will win. Woodburn is the Democratic leader in the Senate, and handily won the district in the last two elections. 

But Northern Pass cuts across party lines.

The most recent WMUR Granite State Poll from last spring found Democrats are more likely to oppose Northern Pass than their Republican counterparts. Roughly 31 percent of voters in the North Country strongly oppose the project, while just 14 percent strongly support it. Project backers say the line’s hydropower will diversify the region’s fuel mix and lower energy costs. 

Woodburn has said he wants the project to be fully buried; roughly 60 of the current 194 miles are set to go underground at this point. But some project critics say Woodburn’s stance doesn’t fully resonate with voters, compared to McPhaul’s definitive opposition. 

Still, it remains to be seen whether McPhaul can pick off those disgruntled Democrats. 

Rebecca Brown, a conservationist who worked with McPhaul to oppose the project, is backing Woodburn because of McPhaul’s conservative position on issues like defunding Planned Parenthood. 

“I think that a lot of people who know Dolly and respect her work on Northern Pass are not aware of her stance on other issues,” Brown said. “This is not a single-issue race. To me, trying to get our state Senate Democratic is really important.” 

While in past years Northern Pass opposition may have propelled a candidate to the Legislature, that time may have faded, some say, with the rise of the opioid crisis and other issues.

“Two years ago, it may have looked like a one-issue campaign,” said state Rep. Linda Massimilla, a Littleton Democrat.

McPhaul is getting help from some big-name state Republicans. Her campaign is being managed in part by Republican Jeanie Forrester, an outgoing state senator from the neighboring 2nd District who ran unsuccessfully this year for governor. McPhaul has raised $30,000 as of last month, compared to Woodburn’s war chest of $121,000, a chunk of which comes from interest groups or Concord lobbyists. 

Northern Pass is currently going through the permitting process. The state Legislature doesn’t get an up or down vote on the project. But McPhaul said in an interview with inDepthNH.org she would propose legislation to limit the state’s permitting authority if elected. She did not respond to a request for comment. 

The race is one of several this cycle that will decide party control of the Senate, which has six open seats up for grabs. 

Two in solidly Democratic districts being vacated by Sens. Molly Kelly and David Pierce, are expected to remain in party control. But the remaining four are toss-ups. And Republican Sen. Kevin Avard faces a tough re-election fight against familiar rival Peggy Gilmour, a Democrat who has previously held the Nashua seat. 

Republicans currently control the 24-member chamber with a 14 to 10 majority. To tip power, Democrats would need to pick up three additional seats. 

Know your worth 

New Hampshire residents have the most influential votes in the country’s presidential election, according to Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight site. The state ranks atop the website’s voter power index, described as the “relative likelihood that an individual voter in a state will determine the Electoral College winner.”

Wikileaks debut

Speaking of voter polls, it seems the Hillary Clinton campaign isn’t very fond of the WMUR Granite State Poll, conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

In an email exchange released by Wikileaks, Clinton’s campaign manager took aim at the poll when it showed the candidate’s popularity dropped. “As always, this poll doesn’t have a good history of accuracy, so we need to take it with a grain of salt,” Robby Mook wrote in an email sent to Clinton in May 2015. 

“Not surprising. You have to work hard for votes there, which is what we will do,” the Democratic presidential nominee responded. 

“Agreed . . . although I still hate UNH polls and what they have done to my blood pressure for years,” Mook said back.

The release is the result of a hack into the emails of Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. 

Clinton lost the state’s primary to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders by double digits. She is leading Republican Donald Trump in the state according to recent polls, including the WMUR Granite State Poll, which in August showed her up by 11 points. 

What to watch

At least one advocate is asking that the state consider emergency funding for child protective services, a week after a report found the agency doesn’t have enough staff to keep up with reports of child mistreatment.

“If we’re having discussions about providing emergency funding for our dairy farmers, we should at the same time be having discussions about the need for emergency funding for New Hampshire’s abused and neglected kids,” said Amanda Grady Sexton, with the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Lawmakers hope to have emergency funding appropriated to dairy farmers on Dec. 7 to help keep the industry afloat.

The report on the Division for Children, Youth and Families said the agency should bring on more than 30 new workers. Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers said he has already reallocated 22 positions to DCYF. 

If new money is awarded to DCYF in the budget process it won’t get to the agency until June. A commission that reviews child abuse fatalities will meet Oct. 26, and the report will be up for discussion.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com)