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New Hampshire, once a Republican stronghold, has moved slowly to the middle

  • Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Ann Romney take the stage at a New Hampshire campaign rally at Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, N.H., Monday, Nov. 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

New Hampshire voters head to the polls today with close races up and down the ballot, as Republicans and Democrats battle for control of the State House, the governor’s office, two U.S. House seats and four electoral votes that could potentially decide the presidential race.

It wasn’t always this way.

Over the last 25 years or so, New Hampshire has gone from ruby-red Republican to a deep shade of purple, with competitive partisan elections at just about every level of government. It’s partly due to demographic changes, observers say, as well as shifts in national politics.

“The national Republican Party has changed over the past half-century, dating back to Barry Goldwater going through (Ronald) Reagan going through (George W.) Bush 43 to the present day, and it’s a party that’s become more southern, more socially conservative, with religious people having more influence,” said Dante Scala, associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. “And that is not a good fit for New Hampshire – even New Hampshire conservatives who tend to be a little more libertarian. I think that’s a factor.”

New Hampshire went for Democrat Lyndon Johnson in his landslide victory over Goldwater in 1964. But otherwise, the state was long reliably Republican when Election Day rolled around.

Republicans controlled the Legislature for decades. Democrats held the governor’s office for just 14 of the 98 years between 1899 and 1997. Reagan trounced Democrat Jimmy Carter here in 1980, winning 58 percent to 28 percent, and Reagan won the state again in 1984 over Democrat Walter Mondale. In 1988, Republican George H.W. Bush beat Democrat Michael Dukakis, 63 percent to 36 percent.

After its first-in-the-nation presidential primary, The Almanac of American Politics declared in its 1986 edition, “New Hampshire, with its four safe Republican electoral votes, seldom sees a national candidate again.”

That began to change in the 1990s.

Democrat Bill Clinton edged Bush in the 1992 race, winning New Hampshire with 39 percent of the vote to 38 percent for Bush and 23 percent for independent Ross Perot. Clinton won again in 1996, then Republican George W. Bush beat Democrat Al Gore in 2000 by 7,211 votes.

Democrat Jeanne Shaheen was elected governor in 1996, and between she and John Lynch, Democrats would hold the governor’s office for 14 of the next 16 years. Democrats briefly took the state Senate in 1998, then took both chambers of the Legislature for four years following the 2006 election, with the GOP roaring back in 2010 to retake the State House.

For several presidential elections, New Hampshire has been a battleground for presidential candidates. This fall has been no exception: President Obama held a large rally Sunday morning in downtown Concord, and Republican Mitt Romney held a rally Saturday on the Seacoast and an election-eve rally last night in Manchester.

Why have Democrats become more competitive in New Hampshire? Scala said political polarization at the national level has eliminated the moderate middle ground once occupied by many New England Republicans, and Democrats now often claim the small-government mantle on some social issues like abortion rights.

Also at play have been demographic changes, said demographer Peter Francese, who lives in Exeter. He noted the significant migration of Baby Boomers to New Hampshire over the last quarter-century – a migration, he said, that has now largely ceased.

“A lot of those in-migrants came from Massachusetts, and they, some of them, might have brought with them a different political attitude,” Francese said. He cautioned, though, “I wouldn’t say they all did, by any means, and once they got here, it’s possible some of their political leanings changed.”

But the influx of people did lead to higher median family income and a higher rate of educational attainment. Almost a third of New Hampshire adults have a bachelor’s degree, versus a national average of about 28 percent, and those states with the highest rates of adults with college degrees tend to support Democrats or be considered swing states, he said.

“The state didn’t get any more diverse,” Francese said, “but an awful lot of people did move here from Massachusetts . . . and a good chunk of them were college graduates, and that, again, changed the complexion of the state.”

Close races

Whatever the reason, late polls showed several close races in New Hampshire ahead of today’s election.

Obama and Romney are battling at the top of the ticket for the state’s four electoral votes.

Democrat Maggie Hassan, a former state senator from Exeter, and Republican Ovide Lamontagne, a Manchester attorney, are running to replace Lynch, who decided not to seek a fifth two-year term as governor.

In the 1st District, U.S. Rep. Frank Guinta, a Manchester Republican, faces Rochester Democrat Carol Shea-Porter, who held the seat for four years until Guinta defeated her in 2010.

In the 2nd District, Democrat Annie Kuster of Hopkinton is challenging U.S. Rep. Charlie Bass, a Peterborough Republican, in another 2010 rematch. Bass held the seat for six terms until losing in 2006.

Also at stake are 400 seats in the New Hampshire State House, 24 seats in the state Senate and five seats on the Executive Council. Republicans hold big majorities in both legislative chambers, as well as all five seats on the council.

Down the ballot are county races, with two seats in play on the three-member Merrrimack County commission. In one district, incumbent Democrat Liz Blanchard of Penacook faces Republican Liz Hager of Concord. In another district, Republican incumbent Peter Spaulding of Hopkinton faces Bill Cohen, a Bow Democrat.

Eight candidates are competing for four seats on the Concord School Board.

Two proposed constitutional amendments also appear on the ballot. One would ban any future state income tax, while the other would give the Legislature power to write rules for state courts; either amendment requires a two-thirds majority for ratification.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

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