Key races to watch in the battle for the New Hampshire Senate

Monitor staff
Published: 10/31/2020 2:15:10 PM

New Hampshire legislative majorities are famously pendular. Parties rise to control in the State House in one national political moment only to be swept out the next.

This year, the fight for control of the State Senate could be the most consequential struggle on the ballot – both for Democrats vying to capitalize on a potential Joe Biden victory and for Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, eager to maintain his seat and cement a legislative legacy.

Two years ago, Democrats stormed the Senate, taking over Republican districts in a wave midterm election and flipping a 14-10 Republican majority to a 14-10 Democratic chamber.

This year, the Democrats must play defense, hoping that a presidential election year that has the Democratic candidate up nearly 10 points can buoy state Senate incumbents whose very victories two years ago were unlikely.

Republicans are hoping to rack up any wins they can.

Here are some of the races to keep an eye on Tuesday.

The close contests

Senate District 23: Sen. Jon Morgan vs. former Sen. Bill Gannon

The narrowest race of 2018 – and the first of several rematches this year. Senate District 23, a traditional Republican stronghold, is currently held by Democratic Sen. Jon Morgan. Morgan captured the seat from incumbent Republican Sen. Bill Gannon by the smallest of margins in 2018 – 0.4% of the vote.

But that was in a midterm election, with high Democratic enthusiasm and no presidential ticket. District 23 swung heavily to Trump in 2016, and Morgan will have to protect his razor-thin past victory amid what could be a bigger infusion of Republican votes this time around.

This could be one seat of 14 that the Democrats can’t quite keep.

Senate District 12: Sen. Melanie Levesque vs. former Sen. Kevin Avard

In a near-mirror replica of the conditions in District 23, Democratic Sen. Melanie Levesque is vying to hang on to a seat she narrowly won in 2018 by 0.7%. And just like in Morgan’s case, Levesque is facing the same Republican former senator she ousted two years ago.

Add the name recognition and connections of Kevin Avard, and the fact that the district – which comprises parts of blue Nashua as well as Republican border towns like Brookline and New Ipswich – had a lot of support for Trump in 2016, and Levesque has a challenge.

Between District 23 and 12, should Trump voter turnout trounce their narrow wins in 2018, the Senate Democrats could lose two seats on Tuesday, erasing their chamber majority entirely and ending in a 12-12 deadlocked Senate. If Democrats hold one or both of those seats, their position for the rest of the map is stronger.

Senate District 8: Sen. Ruth Ward vs. Jenn Alford-Teaster

One way Democrats could stave off a 12-12 deadlock even if they lose the closest two races is by picking up a seat of their own. District 8 provides them with one of their best opportunities to do so.

Currently held by Republican Sen. Ruth Ward, District 8 has long been Republican-held. Spanning the center west of the state, from Sunapee to Washington just west of Concord, the district was easily won by Republican Sen. Bob Odell in 2012, who scooped up 61.4% of the vote, and by Republican Sen. Jerry Little, the current banking commissioner, who won it with 55.5% in 2014.

Over the years, though, the Republican margins of victory have been getting smaller and smaller. Ward took over for Little in the 2016 open election after he resigned to take over the Banking Department, but beat her opponent with a slightly narrower margin than Little had. By 2018, Ward’s re-election, she bested Jenn Alford-Teaster by just 2.6%, or 647 votes.

Now, Alford-Teaster is trying for the seat a second time, and Democrats hope her affinity for fundraising could give them the edge in flipping the seat blue for the first time.

It’s a slight reach, but one that an electoral wave toward Democrats could deliver for them. Watch it closely on Election Night.

Distant potentials

Both Republicans and Democrats have other options to flip seats beyond the examples above, but each gets less and less likely.

Democrats are hoping to topple District 2 Republican Sen. Bob Giuda, currently running for his third term. Like Ward, Giuda won in 2016 with a healthy margin over his opponent, but fell to a lead of just 3.2% in his re-election effort in 2018. Like Ward, Giuda is facing the same opponent this year as last year: Bill Bolton. If there is a wave, Democrats hope Bolton can ride it.

Republicans see potential in taking back the seat Democratic Sen. Shannon Chandley won from Republican former Sen. Gary Daniels in 2018. Daniels is up against Chandley again, providing a boost to the party over a first-time candidate, but Chandley built a strong lead in her 2018 win and carries with her a base from her prior years in the House.

Then there are a range of Democratic seats that are less likely to be taken back by Republicans but are close enough that Democrats must play defense: from District 16 for Sen. Kevin Cavanaugh, to District 9 for Sen. Jeanne Dietsch, to District 24 for Sen. Tom Sherman.

Any Republican wins in those districts, added to the flips in the tighter races, could give them the chamber back with a 13-11 or even 14-10 lead.

Finally, there is the wild card seat: Senate District 1. That district, which comprises all of the state’s North Country, has had a rollercoaster last decade. A strongly-Trump supporting area, the district nonetheless voted for Sen. Jeff Woodburn, a Democrat, for six years.

In 2018, Woodburn was charged with domestic assault, and in his refusal to step down as a candidate for the seat, lost the seat to Republican David Starr, a political newcomer.

Odds are that Republican Rep. Erin Henessey, who primaried Starr in September, can build on Starr’s gains and keep the seat red against Rep. Sue Ford, a well-known House Democrat. But if the swings of that seat have demonstrated something, it’s that North Country voters are anything but predictable.

Safe seats

Of course, both parties have a range of safe seats, too. Seven Republican-held seats and eight Democratic-held ones were won by a margin of over 9% in 2018 and are unlikely to change hands.

The upshot of all this? Democrats could hold their majority, and keep it 14-10. They could lose two seats, deadlocking the Senate 12-12. They could lose two and gain another, keeping a majority. Or Republicans could capture the weakest two and flip another, turning the tables.

The advantage is to Democrats, but only by so much.

Up-ticket effects

With the outcomes on Tuesday for the Senate so wildly divergent, the factors that determine the race, as always, will come from higher up the ticket. How voters perceive and vote for Republicans for higher office – not least of which is President Donald Trump – could have a greater impact on the tighter Senate races than the candidates themselves, noted Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.

Right now, Granite Staters’ dislike of Trump is almost as high as their respect for Gov. Chris Sununu.

That provides a challenge and an opportunity for the governor. While many New Hampshire voters may be entering the polls to vote against Trump and for Joe Biden, many of those same voters have a favorable opinion of Sununu and could vote for him.

Sununu has tried to harvest that goodwill in recent weeks and transfer it to Republicans further down the ballot. Mailers, digital ads, and newspaper banners have featured the governor arm in arm with the Republican candidates, hammering home a basic point: If you support Sununu’s policies, elect these senators to get his priorities done.

It’s the Republican’s best playbook for winning back those seats – pair a popular governor with a former senator that voters are familiar with, or a challenger they’ve seen before. And it comes in contrast to 2018, when Sununu was widely perceived as overly focused on his own re-election efforts and less willing to help down-ballot Republican candidates in a year in which Democrats seized back majorities in the House and Senate.

Whether it works this time is another story. In 2018, Sununu benefited from the ticket splitters – moderate voters who, like in Vermont and Massachusetts, voted all Democratic but made a specific, isolated exception for the broadly popular governor.

Those voters had clear intentions. This year, Sununu is hoping to peel off left-leaning voters who support him so much that they would vote for a Republican Senate majority. But recent history is not on his side.

For now, absent Legislature-level polls, the outcome of the key Senate races is anyone’s guess. But don’t be surprised if the fate of the next two years in the Legislature hangs on a few hundred votes.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)



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