N.H. GOP losing 3 state senators willing to work across the aisle
State Sen. Jim Rausch of Derry announced he won’t seek re-election yesterday, making him the third Republican senator who plans to vacate his seat alongside Sens. Bob Odell of New London and Peter Bragdon of Milford.
Even during times of intense polarization at the State House, all three have shown a willingness to work across the aisle on at least a few major issues, leading to bipartisan plans to increase the state’s gas tax to pay for road and bridge repairs, expand Medicaid and join 10 other states in a plan to reduce carbon emissions. But it’s these very types of initiatives that have led conservatives, including the Republican Liberty Caucus, to threaten primaries against incumbent Senate Republicans. With the retirement of just these three senators, the New Hampshire Senate could look very different next year.
“A big question is who emerges as the Republican candidates in those districts, and will they be in a similar cast to those three or will they be more partisan,” said Dante Scala, associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.
Conservative challengers emerged in both Odell’s and Rausch’s districts even before the two announced their retirement plans, but both point to family as their reasons for retiring. Both have been in the Legislature for 14 years, with Rausch spending four in the Senate and Odell 12. Bragdon is retiring to continue his work as executive director of HealthTrust, a job that caused him to step down as Senate president and prompted an ethics investigation last fall. He will leave the Legislature on June 6. No Senate Democrats have yet announced plans to retire, but more announcements are likely. About one-third of the Senate turns over each year.
New Hampshire Republican Party Vice Chairman JP Marzullo will take on former New Hampshire Banking Association president Jerry Little in a primary to replace Odell, while state Rep. Linda Tanner of Georges Mills is the Democrat seeking his seat. State Reps. Regina Birdsell of Hampstead and Frank Sapareto of Derry, as well as Jim Foley, chairman of the Derry Republican Committee, will face off for Rausch’s seat. For Bragdon’s seat, Rep. Gary Daniels of Milford and Merrimack town Councilor Dan Dwyer, who lost to Bragdon in a 2012 primary, both told WMUR they will run.
Democrats are feeling confident about their chances of picking up seats.
“We have motivated, strong candidates on the ballot, and the (Democratic Party) will be working doggedly to give our candidates the support they need to connect with families across the state who are sick of far-right representatives who work more for the special interests than for our communities,” party Chairman Ray Buckley said in a statement. “With these Republicans leaving the Senate, and the far right primaries that are shaping up, it is clear the Tea Party faction of the (Republican Party) is flexing its muscle.”
But Bragdon noted that all three districts have a moderate edge, which he said makes it likely Republicans elected to run for those seats will bring a similar approach to their predecessors.
Based on the numbers, Democrats have the best shot at picking up Odell’s seat. His district, which covers 24 towns including Antrim, Hillsborough, New London, Newbury and Weare, voted for Democrat Maggie Hassan by a wide margin in the 2012 election and President Obama by a smaller one. Odell has built a reputation as one of the Senate’s most bipartisan Republicans. He worked on a Medicaid expansion plan that uses the federal dollars to expand access to private health care for 50,000 individuals, supported the gas tax increase and was one of two Republicans to vote for repealing the death penalty after a memorable speech on the Senate floor.
Rausch’s district, which covers Derry, Hampstead and Windham, is solidly Republican. One of Rausch’s biggest legacies will be his effort to increase the gas tax by 4 cents, the first increase since 1991. His effort took serious heat from Republican groups, and just four other Republicans, including Bragdon and Odell, supported the bill. Rausch also said his work with Republican Sen. Nancy Stiles to revamp the state’s education funding formula is one of his proudest accomplishments. He also joined six other Republicans to vote for Medicaid expansion. After spending 10 years in the House, Rausch said the Senate has a more collegial environment.
“I am a Republican. I believe in Republican principles, but through all that, we have to solve problems,” Rausch said.
Bragdon controlled the Senate during Bill O’Brien’s reign as speaker of the House, and the Senate often handled issues with a more pragmatic approach than the lower chamber. In 2008, Bragdon co-sponsored legislation bringing New Hampshire into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade type agreement with 10 other states aimed at reducing carbon emissions by power plants. Bragdon voted this year for the gas tax increase, but largely because he was able to secure an elimination of tolls in Merrimack as part of the deal. He recused himself on the Medicaid expansion vote, citing a conflict of interest with his work at HealthTrust. Bragdon said he believes its possible to work across the aisle without giving up on “underlying core principles.”
“I do think my approach is to sit down with people and talk about stuff and see if you can come to a meeting of the minds,” he said. You “treat each other with respect, and that comes in handy the next time you want to deal with an issue.”
His district, made up of Amherst, Merrimack, Milford and Wilton, voted for Hassan in the 2012 governor’s race, but for Republican Mitt Romney in the presidential.
For all of the three seats, vigorous primaries are expected.
The Republican Liberty Caucus plans to hold steady on its promise to find “liberty-minded” candidates to challenge every senator, Republicans and Democrats, who voted for Medicaid expansion, Chairman Aaron Day said. As of now, they’ve recruited 20 candidates.
All candidates for statewide office must file to run between June 4-13. Voters will have until the Sept. 9 primary to decide whose approach they like best.
(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or email@example.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)