Cavanaugh surprised by margin of victory in special election

  • Kevin Cavanaugh (left) shakes hands with Kenneth McDonald of Manchester.

Monitor staff
Saturday, July 29, 2017

Kevin Cavanaugh’s campaign strategy mimicked his life motto: “You gotta play like you’re the underdog.”

And when it came to the District 16 state Senate special election, there’s no doubt Cavanaugh was up against an impressive opponent: David Boutin of Hooksett, whose political history in the area includes a short Senate term via special election in 2010 and two full-length Senate terms, a House of Representatives term and two state representative terms.

Boutin – who would have had the chance to compete for the Senate seat for the fourth time in a row in 2016 – returned to politics this year after taking time off for family reasons.

Boutin was also backed by a history of Republican control in the district – the last time a Democrat held the position was 1984. By contrast, Cavanaugh, a first-term alderman for Ward 1 in Manchester, had never held a state political office prior to winning the special election for the seat left empty by Democratic Sen. Scott McGilvray, who died in March.

“I had a knot in my stomach all day,” Cavanaugh said of the Tuesday election. “I couldn’t relax until we got all the numbers. I was definitely surprised – I thought it was going to be a lot tighter than it ended up being.”

So how did a political David beat Goliath? A combination of strong efforts to turn out the vote, name recognition, and the possibility of shifting political winds, according to political experts. And though the election may not have a huge impact in the Senate – now controlled by Republicans 14-10 – those same experts say a Democratic win in a Republican stronghold may have implications for the 2018 election cycle.

How it happened

For Boutin, deciding to take a term off may have been his downfall, according to Dante Scala, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.

“Boutin’s name ID advantage was minimized,” he wrote via email. “Boutin was not on the ballot in 2016. Voters forget easily, especially state senators.”

Scala also noted Cavanaugh had been on the Manchester ballot – which he easily carried in Wards 1, 2 and 12 – recently for the alderman role and had strong name recognition in Ward 1 as a long-time resident.

But there was also the challenge of competing in a summer special election, when it’s harder to reach, let alone motivate, casual voters to turn out. Both Democrats and Republicans encouraged absentee voting, but getting the message out is a lot harder in small towns like Dunbarton and Candia – which favored Boutin – where voters are more spread out, said Wayne Lesperance, political science professor at New England College.

“In some ways it is easier to reach voters in larger towns/cities,” Lesperance wrote via email.

There’s also the size factor: Dunbarton, with 2,217 registered voters, and Candia, with 3,245 registered voters, have less voters combined than the 6,220 registered voters in Manchester’s Ward 1 and subsequently had less votes on Tuesday. Hooksett,which supported Boutin as well, has close to 11,000 registered voters, but only around 17 percent voter turnout on Tuesday. In contrast, around 23 percent of voters turned out in Bow, Candia and Dunbarton. In Manchester, the voting turnout was 31 percent in Ward 1, 23 percent in Ward 2 and 16 percent in Ward 12.

Bow and Manchester favored Cavanaugh, which wasn’t surprising to Scala. “Bow and Manchester’s Ward 1 are two examples of areas with large numbers of wealthy, well educated voters,” he wrote. Scala also noted Ward 1 is home to Democrat Joyce Craig, a former alderman who faces a rematch against Republican Ted Gatsas in the Manchester mayoral race.

Cavanaugh’s take on his win boiled down to two aspects: his born-and-raised status in Manchester and aggressive campaigning.

“I think it’s about the personal relationships,” he said. “There’s a saying that ‘All politics are local.” ... When people see what you’re doing in the community, the way you handle yourself, that’s the biggest thing.”

Cavanaugh said the same was true for McGilvray, who was an educator for 24 years in Manchester. “People knew Scott as a teacher and a coach, not just as a union person,” he said. “They saw what he was doing for people and that gave him cross-over appeal.”

And when it came to door-knocking, Cavanaugh said his campaign wore their knuckles out.

“We had to work at it like we didn’t expect to win,” he said. “It was incredible, we must have knocked on over 30,000 doors. It was just work – we took July Fourth off, and that was it.”

What it means

While the state Senate may still be Republican controlled, Lesperance said the loss of a traditionally-Republican district may be enough to unsettle the GOP.

“The real impact is political,” he wrote. “GOPers are turning towards 2018 and are trying to read the political tea leaves. They will spend a lot of time trying to figure out what this election means in the next election cycle.”

The District 16 special election is the second time this year a Demcrat has usurped a traditionally-Republican district. Wolfeboro’s District 6 special election earlier this year ended in an upset when Democrat Edith DesMarais defeated Republican Matthew Plache 811-755 for a House of Representative seat. A Democrat hasn’t won that district since 1913.

A sign of things to come? Scala was doubtful.

“Whether this special election is a sign of an impending wave is debatable – but the winners surely will sell it as such, and that’s what matters,” he wrote.

Cavanaugh will be sworn into his new role on Aug. 23, according to his campaign manager Brexton Issacs.

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @ActualCAndrews.)