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Minority Democrats outhustling GOP for House candidates

By KEVIN LANDRIGAN
New Hampshire Union Leader

August 06. 2016 5:56PM


Whitefield Republican John Tholl, a popular, local police chief and retired state trooper, is not seeking re-election for a seventh term in the House of Representatives.

Likewise, moderate Republican State Rep. David Kidder of New London, the son of a legendary House budget leader, is hanging it up after 12 years representing the Upper Valley in Concord.

And in an election year that started out very promising for the state GOP, no Republican has emerged to run for either seat.

They are not alone. Republicans took back the House majority in 2014, but early on this year they have been outhustled by Democrats who have covered many more seats in the 400-person chamber.

With a 73-vote advantage in the current body – 230-to-157 – Republicans would presumably be able to field a bigger slate for seats in the House. Boosting GOP hopes this year are that Sen. Kelly Ayotte is seeking re-election and the party has its best chance to win the governor’s office in 14 years.

Two-term Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan is leaving the State House corner office at year’s end to go after the Senate seat Ayotte holds.

But a New Hampshire Sunday News analysis confirmed the GOP has many more gaping holes to fill this slate of House contenders.

The GOP filled 335 seats with at least one candidate but the Democrats have 361 seats covered.

Senate Democratic Leader Jeff Woodburn, D-Whitefield, said the frenzied Republican presidential primary and nominee Donald Trump’s unforced errors since then might have contributed to this being a down year, at least thus far, for GOP recruitment.

“They have not been aggressive about finding candidates and it shows,” Woodburn began.

What complicates the picture for the House GOP leadership is more than 60 incumbents are not running again. That forced state party leaders to really scramble to find new candidates in those districts.

Many of those retirees are long-term veterans and proven vote-getters, from former House Speaker Bill O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, ex-Deputy Speaker Pam Tucker, R-Greenfield, 22-year Rep. David Hess, R-Hooksett, former Majority Leader Jack Flanagan, R-Brookline and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Steve Stepanek, R-Amherst.

Greg Moore, state director of the fiscally-conservative Americans for Prosperity group, said there’s been a lot of turnover in the House Republican Alliance, the preeminent source for grassroots Republican candidate recruitment.

“Bill O’Brien rode the HRA to the speakership, he’s gone; Pam Tucker was vice chairman, she ran for Congress and now she’s out of it altogether and the third chairman was Leon Rideout, who’s left the House to run for the Senate,” Moore said.

What’s frustrating for conservative activists like Moore is that AFP’s own focus groups show a three-to-five point advantage on paper for a GOP legislative candidate even with Trump’s troubles.

After all, a trend for a changing of the New Hampshire House guard is well in place. Voters have thrown out the party in each of the past three elections; this upheaval started in 2006 when Democrats took over the lower legislative chamber for the first time in nearly a century.

Aaron Goulette is the senior legislative aide for House Republicans and in his personal time a seasoned, GOP operative.

“We have seen how susceptable the House has been the way the political wave seems to be going,” Goulette said. “It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that may happen again in 2016.”

Both parties have faced these challenging times of late with recruiting; that came for Democrats in 2010 when O’Brien rode to the House speakership in an election that gave Republicans 3-1 majorities in both the House and Senate.

So Democrats are trying to pounce and take advantage. For example, in Tholl’s North Country district, with no Republican yet in sight, veteran reporter Edith Tucker was recruited to run.

It’s a political reality that both parties historically can’t compete and often just give up trying in super-partisan strongholds. That’s why no Republicans signed up to run for any of five seats in Durham and Madbury or for any of four Upper Valley seats in Hanover and Lyme, near the Vermont border.

For more than a decade, Democrats haven’t won a single House seat in Salem, Derry and Bedford and this explains why their biggest holes in the state are there.

Martin cites Concord as a bad sign for the GOP.

There, only two Republicans are running for 12 seats, even though former Army veteran and GOP activist Lynn Blackenbeker won a special election there in 2011 and easily won re-election a year later.

“I’m really surprised to have the summer off,” said former Concord Mayor Rep. Jim MacKay. “The Merrimack County Republicans have been active in the past but this year we just don’t see it.”

It’s not like New Hampshire makes it hard for the political parties to produce legislative candidates. After the June filing period, the Democratic and Republican Party chairmen have absolute power to select any warm-body district resident who is registered to vote and select him or her as the fill-in for a vacancy.

Even at this late stage, all is not lost. State law also permits these vacancies to be filled in the Sept. 13 primary if a write-in candidate gets at least 10 votes and beats all others for the spot.

Moore recalled O’Brien’s forces in 2010 filled more than a dozen vacancies that way.

House GOP staffer Goulette said no such contingency plan for a write-in push has been drawn up, but there’s still time for one.

Both parties have their own propoganda, as AFP’s Moore cites focus-group intensity and presidential-primary turnout to conclude it’s a GOP year.

House Democrats recently revealed their own forecast model based on national voting paterns and the registered-voter makeup of the House districts.

They conclude the Nov. 8 election will give Democrats a 221-to-179 majority and make current House Democratic Leader Steve Shurtleff of Penacook speaker of the House in 2017.

Even Senate Democratic boss Woodburn won’t go that far.

“I wouldn’t want to guess what’s going to happen between now and November, it’s a work in progress,” Woodburn summed up.

“This cycle has already been wildly unpredictable; why should the rest of it right up until Election Day be any different?”

klandrigan@unionleader.com


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