Can Republicans capture the N.H. Legislature?

Last modified: 11/4/2014 7:29:14 PM
New Hampshire is no stranger to sweeping shifts in the balance of power at the State House, at least in recent years.

It happened, most notably, in 2006 when Democrats made major gains at the state level. They rode in, as a group of Republicans would several years later, on a wave of dissatisfaction stemming largely from George W. Bush’s presidency.

“That was a big shocker,” said longtime Granite State political observer Dean Spiliotes, an observation others echoed.

The political seesaw tipped back again in 2010, as Republicans at the state level enjoyed significant gains as part of an anti-­incumbent wave – influenced by the Tea Party and dissatisfaction with President Obama – that swept across the rest of the nation.

This year, state political observers say we could be in store for yet another shift at the State House as Republicans stand poised to again capitalize on anti-­incumbent sentiment that has run throughout campaigns at all levels. The key question is not whether Republicans could take back control of the House of Representatives, but instead how large their gains will be.

“New Hampshire Democrats would be thrilled if, by the end of Tuesday night, this turns out to be a status quo­-type election, as far as the state Legislature and the executive council (are concerned),” said University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala.

When asked which party’s candidates they planned to support this year, Republicans held a slight edge over Democrats in both the state House and Senate races, according to the most recent Granite State Poll from UNH and WMUR.

For the House races, 43 percent planned to vote Republican, 39 percent planned to vote Democrat, 2 percent planned to vote for another party and 16 percent remained undecided, according to the poll.

For the Senate races, 42 percent of those polled were planning to vote for Republican candidates, 38 percent planned to support Democrats and 20 percent said they were still undecided. (In both of the previous cases, those results include undecided voters who were asked to specify the party they more heavily favored.)

Those results, according to the poll, would likely mean a breakdown of 252 Republicans to 148 Democrats in the House, and 16 Republican seats in the Senate to eight Democrats there.

What’s at stake for the 
next governor?

The outcomes of the legislative races – not to mention those for the Executive Council – have the potential to complicate things for the next governor, whomever that might be. While incumbent Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan maintains a lead over her Republican opponent Walt Havenstein in many polls, that lead has narrowed in recent weeks, and some polls have the race within the statistical margin of error, or too close to call.

Even if the gubernatorial election works out in Hassan’s favor, a Republican­-controlled Legislature would put her claims about being able to work across party lines to the ultimate test. In this case, the experts agreed, the challenge ahead for Hassan would depend heavily on how many seats the Republicans are able to pick up and, equally as crucial, who ascends to the House speakership.

“The Republican party has almost been two parties, the Main Streets and the more conservative Republicans,” said University of New Hampshire political scientist Andy Smith. “The Main Street representatives often have more difficulties with their Republican colleagues.”

If Havenstein pulls ahead in the end, the political experts said, he could face challenges of his own.

“I suspect if that happens you’d wind up with a moderate conservative governor grappling with a very conservative Legislature,” Scala said, adding that such a scenario would likely further embolden the party’s representatives to push through more conservative policies. “If there are big, big Republican majorities in both houses, they would say, ‘Okay, we have a mandate.’ ”

Beyond its implications for the immediate future of state policy, this election could also signal whether the pendulum­like political pattern is the new normal for the Granite State.

“These switches back and forth are unprecedented, to be sure,” said Kevin Landrigan, the NH1 chief political correspondent who has covered state politics for decades. “And I think this election may tell us a lot in that respect, whether this is a permanent condition we’re going to have.”

And if the back-and-forth waves are here to stay, the stakes are more than political. A Legislature that shifts from one side to the other every few years, especially if those sides have vastly different priorities or principles, could make it difficult to see through any significant policy change that would require long­-term oversight.

Landrigan pointed to the state’s medical marijuana law and an effort to change sentencing laws to address recidivism as two such examples.

“Significant change in public policy usually takes more than one term of office to occur,” he said.

Susceptible to swings

The state Legislature’s volatility in recent years stems from several factors.

Landrigan attributes some of it to forces that are changing the political landscape at all levels: social media and the 24­-7 news cycle, which in his view has contributed to a more finicky electorate and one that’s more likely to be easily influenced by a recent event, as opposed to drawing on someone’s long­-term record.

Then, there’s the multi-­member districts in New Hampshire’s 400­-member House, the largest such body in the nation. Those districts can be more susceptible to all-­or-­nothing shifts, depending on the mood of the electorate, especially when the races at the local level are increasingly influenced by national forces, said Smith, of the UNH Survey Center.

“In the House and in the Senate, the House in particular, that’s where you could see waves get amplified because of multi­member districts,” Smith said.

Spiliotes echoed this assessment: “The swings in past contests in both chambers is really an extended version of what’s going on at the top of the ticket. Even without straight­-ticket voting now, that’s still how people vote.”

At the state level, Spiliotes and others added, the Senate is usually somewhat “less swingy” than the House – in part because it’s only a fraction of the size and because the races tend to be higher profile. Redistricting a few years ago also insulated the chamber a bit further from more dramatic cycle­-to-­cycle shifts, they said.

Then, there’s the question of how many voters – from either party – show up to the polls. Whether the country – or the state – is in store for another wave election could depend on turnout, Smith and others say.

Enthusiasm gaps that Republicans enjoyed have “largely disappeared, the Democrats seem to be just as excited and interested as Republicans in this election,” Smith said, adding that the competitive nature of the races could work to temper what would otherwise be more significant losses for the Democrats. “It’s still probably going to be a good Republican year, but not like 2010.”

For Democrats to win the House or the Senate, Smith estimates the party would need at least 53 percent of the popular vote.

“National climate drives turnout,” Smith said. “And that does impact local elections. Typically, the president’s party does not turn out, or they turn out in much lower levels. . . . That impacts races up and down the ticket for that party.”

That’s what happened in 2006, when the Democrats picked up gains on the Republicans in the middle of Bush’s second presidential term, and a similar political environment this year – with the parties reversed – could affect the outcome at the local level.

“It’s the same dynamic,” Smith said. “This year it’s the Democrats who are at the mercy of the unpopular president in a second midterm election.”

The importance of voter turnout is also part of the reason you’re seeing so many negative ads this year, Smith added. They are often used as an attempt to suppress turnout among voters who might otherwise consider supporting your opponent – or that opponent’s perceived allies.

Changes in civic culture

When thinking about the changing nature of state-­level races, it’s also worth noting the changing demographics of those on the ballot and their changing relationship with the electorate.

Michael Dupre, a senior research fellow at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, said fewer members in both chambers of the State House can claim New Hampshire roots: In the House, 30 percent of representatives in 2013 were born in the state, down from 50 percent in 1981: In the Senate, five were born in New Hampshire and seven in neighboring Massachusetts, whereas half of the state Senate in 1981 were New Hampshire natives. According to the records he’s maintained as part of his research, Dupre said it looks like the proportion of Granite­ State-born legislators began dwindling in the last 15 years or so. Spiliotes, for his part, said he recently moderated a candidate forum where most had only been in the state four to six years.

An increase in candidates who are transplants to the state might help to explain why New Hampshire residents are less attached to their state legislators and, in turn, more likely to sweep them out of office.

New Hampshire, generally speaking, has higher voter turnout than a lot of other states and good viewership for its debates – so there is something to the idea that the state fosters a particularly engaged political culture, Spiliotes and the others said. But, as is the case across the country, many aren’t keeping an especially close eye on who’s representing them in Concord.

According to a Granite State Poll conducted in February, less than one-­fifth of respondents could name either their state senator or one of their state representatives – in both cases, down from the figures in a 2000 edition of the poll.

“Many argue that this puts representatives closer to the people, but the people of New Hampshire don’t appear to be too close to their representatives,” Smith and colleagues wrote in their report on the findings.

As Scala noted when asked about these findings, the average resident might fare better if you asked him or her that question during campaign season instead. Still, he and the others agreed that voters remain somewhat more disengaged from state-­level politics than conventional wisdom would suggest.

“As the old saying goes, living in New Hampshire you either know a representative or you’re going to be in the House yourself,” Dupre said. “I don’t think that’s the case anymore.”

(Casey McDermott can be reached at 369-3306 or or on Twitter @caseymcdermott.)

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