Analysis: Will 2017 N.H. election results foreshadow what’s to come in 2018?

  • Joyce Craig speaks after winning the Manchester mayoral race Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. Craig became the first woman ever elected to the office in New Hampshire’s largest city. Paul Steinhauser / For the Monitor

For the Monitor
Wednesday, November 08, 2017

The blue wave that rolled over Virginia and New Jersey on Tuesday splashed into New Hampshire, with Democrats winning the mayor’s seat in Manchester and two special elections for house seats, boosting party leaders’ enthusiasm for a repeat performance in the 2018 midterm elections.

“This is really big for Democrats in New Hampshire,” said Kathy Sullivan, a former state party chairwoman and one of the Granite State’s two members on the Democratic National Committee.

But while Tuesday’s big victories will help Democrats going forward when it comes to candidate recruitment, it’s far from a sure thing that Tuesday’s results are a barometer of things to come in next year’s showdowns.

Steve Duprey, a former chairman of the New Hampshire GOP and one of the state’s two members on the Republican National Committee, said, “Democrats always overplay any victory.”

The Granite State election grabbing the most attention was Democrat Joyce Craig’s defeat of Republican Mayor Ted Gatsas of Manchester. Craig lost to Gatsas by just 64 votes two years ago, but topped the four-term incumbent by nearly 1,500 votes in the rematch, carrying nine of the city’s 12 wards.

Craig, come January, will become the first female mayor in Manchester’s history. And she’s the first Democrat in 14 years to win a mayoral election in northern New England’s largest city.

In Nashua, Democrats swept the contests for ward and at-large aldermen, defeating several conservative incumbent Republicans.

And Democrats won both special elections in the state’s House of Representatives on Tuesday, including flipping a GOP-controlled seat in Manchester. It was the fourth seat that’s switched from red to blue this year, and the party has now come out on top in eight of the 10 State House special elections held so far in 2017.

Nationally, Democrats won big in Virginia, keeping the governor’s office by a larger-than-expected margin. They also won statewide contests for lieutenant governor and attorney general and made major gains in Virginia’s Legislature. The party won back the governor’s office in New Jersey, grabbed victories in two deep-red state House districts in Georgia, and voters in Maine backed Medicaid expansion, which is favored by Democrats.

Sullivan said the Granite State victories are “a huge boost” for the state party.

“We did it the right way. Door to door. Talking neighbor to neighbor. And that’s what Democrats do and it worked very well, and that’s what we’re going to do in the next year or so,” she said.

New Hampshire Young Democrats president Lucas Meyer predicted that “the results last night certainly are going to send reverberations around the state as far as recruiting quality candidates for state offices from the Executive Council to the state Senate to the House and the governor’s office. There’s no doubt that on a local level people are engaged.”

“I think people that haven’t otherwise thought about running for office in some of these more competitive Republican seats are going to be more energized or willing to take that step now,” he said. “It’s going to be a much easier conversation to recruit quality candidates who are going to run really aggressive grassroots campaigns.”

“The State House is very much in play,” Meyer said.

Just as in Washington, where the GOP controls the White House and both houses of Congress, Concord is also under one party’s control. Gov. Chris Sununu is the first Republican in the corner office in dozen years, and the party holds majorities in the state Senate, House and the five-member Executive Council.

With the 2017 elections now over, more Democrats are expected jump into the race to succeed retiring Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter in New Hampshire’s 1st Congressional District. And Tuesday’s victories may persuade more Democrats to enter the gubernatorial race against Sununu, who enjoys high approval ratings. So far, 2016 Democratic gubernatorial contender Steve Marchand, a former mayor of Portsmouth, is the only major declared candidate for the Democratic nomination.

Former executive councilor Colin Van Ostern, who lost to Sununu in last year’s general election by some 18,000 votes, vigorously campaigned for Craig and Nashua Democrats. Van Ostern, who hasn’t ruled out another bid for governor in 2018, mingled with party activists at Craig’s victory celebration at Manchester’s Puritan Conference Center.

In a Wednesday morning email to supporters that may be a hint of things to come, Van Ostern wrote “thank you for standing with me in making this progress. Let’s keep it up.”

Republicans obviously don’t agree with the Democrats’ optimism.

Sununu, speaking with reporters Wednesday, said the results in Manchester were “about that race. Every race is really taken individually.”

And he said the results of Tuesday’s contests don’t give him concern going in to 2018.

Duprey, a key player in Sen. John McCain’s 2000 and 2008 victories in the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary, told the Monitor, “I’m glad that (the Democrats) are energized and think that this gives them momentum, but I think they’re reading too much into it. Ted Gatsas served a long time as mayor and did a great job, but the sense I get is that folks in Manchester were just looking for a change.”

Duprey said he’s “not concerned at all” about his party’s chances in 2018, noting that “midterm elections are always tough on the party in power, but with Chris Sununu at the top of the ticket, and with no senatorial race, it bodes well for the Republicans.”

It’s debatable whether elections the year after a presidential contest serve as an accurate barometer for the ensuing midterm elections. Major GOP victories in 2009, the year after President Barack Obama’s election to the White House, foreshadowed the Republican tidal wave in the 2010 midterm contests.

But Wayne Lesperance, professor of political science at New England College, cautioned against reading too much into Tuesday’s results.

“Last night was the first time Democrats could be really happy since Obama’s re-election victory. They really haven’t had a lot to be excited about since then,” Lesperance said. “But if you assume that the problems the Democratic Party has are resolved, I think that’s a mistake. They still have very deep structural problems.”

And he suggested that voters are more fickle than ever.

“I think voters are frustrated with a lack of progress from the president and Congress. You had some folks that were sort of in the middle that went with Trump during the presidential election that appear to have switched to Democrats in this election,” Lesperance said.

“If we have learned anything in the last few cycles, it’s that those are not permanent changes in party registration. Those are not permanent alliances,” he said. “Voters are really fickle in this sense, and they’re moving in response to what’s happening in the moment.”