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September 13. 2012 9:25PM

Fergus Cullen: Outside groups are beating the NH GOP at picking candidates

If you voted in Tuesday’s primary, you’re weird. Four in five New Hampshire adults didn’t. But beyond showing up to vote, it’s what voters do in the voting booth that can be really strange.

Laconia-Franklin area Republicans chose a candidate for state Senate, Josh Youseff, who owes nearly $50,000 in taxes, interest and penalties to the IRS. Youseff is also an “angry dad” whose bitter divorce, custody and child support disputes have resulted in the candidate not being able to have unsupervised visits with his child. He is seeking to have the judges involved in his sad case impeached. Apparently 2,752 voters thought this makes Youseff sound senatorial, so they nominated him.

Once upon a time, party elders might have counseled such a candidate to focus on stabilizing his personal affairs before seeking public office and, if he didn’t take the hint, block him from getting on the ballot. Instead Youseff’s nomination, which effectively cedes a district that should elect a Republican to Democrat Andrew Hosmer, illustrates the continued declining strength of parties and the rise of independent groups as more influential forces in politics.

Help from well-funded outside groups is how Farmington state Rep. Sam Cataldo knocked off former state Sen. Dick Green in a primary for state Senate despite raising just $1,200 for his campaign. Such groups did the direct mail that Cataldo was incapable of organizing or paying for on his own.

One such group, Americans for Prosperity, made life for state Senate President Peter Bragdon unpleasant by targeting the Amherst senator for defeat for what AFP saw as not having done enough to end New Hampshire’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Bragdon beat back the AFP-funded direct mail but had to work hard — and expend considerable money no longer available for the general election or to help other candidates.

Are such efforts a counterproductive waste of money and goodwill? AFP state director Corey Lewandowski is unapologetic about having picked a fight with the conservative Bragdon.

“Americans for Prosperity reminds citizens of candidate’s voting records on issues that are important to us,” Lewandowski told me the day after the election. “If voters agree with the candidates, they should support them. If they disagree, they shouldn’t.”

AFP successfully targeted state Reps. Peter Bolster of Alton, Bill Remick of Lancaster, Russ Day of Goffstown, Tony Soltani of Epsom, and Julie Brown for their positions on right to work, RGGI, or constitutional amendments making it harder to raise taxes. Brown, who was city chairman of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential primary campaign, was effectively purged from the Republican Party. A separate right-to-work group claims partial credit for the primary defeat of David Welch of Kingston, who is otherwise considered a conservative.

Groups of the left were active, too. New Hampshire Republicans for Freedom and Equality, a pro-gay marriage group, sent mail defending dozens of candidates the group considers good on their issues. Freedom and Equality was largely financed by a New York businessman who gave $100,000 for the cause, which is probably more than candidates of both parties for all 400 house seats spent on their own races combined. The state employees union set up New Hampshire Citizens for a Better New Hampshire — who could be against that? — to protect a handful of Republicans the unions considered supportive of their priorities.

Some of these groups, such as the gay rights group, organize as traditional political action committees and must disclose their sources of funding and how they spend the money. Others, such as the New Hampshire Advantage Coalition, which targeted Green, organize as non-profit educational outfits to circumvent disclosure laws, which is perfectly legal. Lewandowski notes that some donors want to be known — in which case they might choose to support a PAC — while others prefer to act anonymously.

“Candidate committees have almost become irrelevant. If you can write a larger, more substantial check, there’s no reason to give to candidates. Everything you want to do, you can do through a PAC or another entity. It makes the behind-the-scenes players much more influential than they ever were.”

They say the reason the Republican Party chose the elephant as its symbol is because elephants never forget. Outside groups nursing grudges make sure voters won’t, either.

Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at fergus@ferguscullen.com.


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