Editorial: A tip for Bob Smith: It’s been a long 10 years
Welcome back, Mr. Smith!
Bob Smith, the former Republican senator from New Hampshire, announced this week that he’s going to try to win back the seat he lost in 2002, the one now occupied by Democrat Jeanne Shaheen. It’s an unlikely move from a politician who announced just a few weeks earlier that he wasn’t running, but Smith is nothing if not unpredictable.
It is no doubt hard for New Hampshire Republicans to figure out what to make of Smith, a man who has flirted in the past with running for office (not just Senate but president as well!) as a Republican, as an independent and as a member of an obscure third party. Indeed, in 2002, the state GOP tossed him aside in favor of John E. Sununu (who, six years later, lost to Shaheen). But should voters and political donors embrace him this time around, he’ll have one big lesson to learn: New Hampshire is far different today than he might remember.
Smith served two terms in the U.S. Senate and three in the House, from 1985 to 2003. It was largely a good time for New Hampshire Republicans. A decade later, from his perch in Florida, Smith has missed an era of great flux in the state.
The concerns of his former constituents have changed – as have the demographics of the state. The issues that occupied New Hampshire at the turn of the 21st century are different from the ones the state wrestles with now, more than a decade later. Among the phrases that weren’t on our lips back when Smith was senator: Northern Pass, carbon footprint, refugee resettlement, iPhones, iPads, Twitter, Facebook, Obamacare, E-ZPass, Lady Gaga, Gov. Maggie Hassan. (Among the phrases that were: “as solid as the Old Man of the Mountain.”)
In the years since Smith left the Senate, New Hampshire has aged. Its college students have become terribly burdened by debt. It has become a pioneer in the area of gay rights – and in sending women to Washington. It has a man on death row. Its non-white population has grown, particularly in the southern part of the state and particularly in communities where refugees from all parts of the globe have settled. Its health-care system is under stress in a variety of ways. Several years after the end of the Great Recession, many residents still feel its lingering effects.
Perhaps of greatest concern to a pol trying to make a comeback: New Hampshire has become politically mercurial. Remember when the Tea Party Republicans held sway – briefly – in the New Hampshire House? And remember when they got tossed out in big numbers? Remember when Hillary Clinton beat Barack Obama in a primary here? Remember when it seemed like John Lynch would be governor forever? Remember when Paul Hodes was the 2nd District congressman? All of that happened in the post-Smith era.
If Smith sticks to his latest announcement and does, indeed, run for the U.S. Senate from New Hampshire, he will need to reintroduce himself to his former constituents – and they to him. He’d be smart to organize the sort of listening tour Clinton embarked upon when she first ran for the Senate from New York: meetings galore, in all parts of the state, in which Smith could put aside whatever long-ago notions he might still have about how to represent New Hampshire and listen closely to what residents have on their mind here in 2013. Save us a seat – the conversation will no doubt be a good one.