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November 08. 2012 11:45PM

Fergus Cullen: Will NH Republicans learn the lessons from Tuesday?

There is no education in the second kick of a mule. In 2006, New Hampshire Republicans suffered their worst defeat ever. After recovering in 2010, this week the Republican Party finds itself back in 2006, facing the same existential questions about why disaster struck and what to do about it.

My answer today is the same as it was then: The Republican Party and its candidates don't need to moderate or compromise their conservative philosophy, but they do need to modernize and adapt those principles to changing times, stop re-fighting yesterday's battles, and focus as much on earning the trust of centrist voters as on satisfying their own base.

Political pendulums are always in motion, but speeds this fast and arcs this big are historically unprecedented. In 2006, the GOP lost a then-unheard of 97 seats in the Legislature. Just two years ago, Democrats lost 130. This week Republicans lost at least 126 seats in the House and Senate. The parties have traded legislative majorities three times in four elections. The national election produced a status quo result, with little change in Washington, but New Hampshire got hit by a rogue one-state wave. The blame goes not to Mitt Romney, who ran a good campaign and poured resources into the state; or to Ovide Lamontagne, whose campaign should have been good enough.

The drag on the ticket was the motley crew of insular Tea Partiers, Free Staters, birthers, Agenda 21 conspiracy theorists, and borderline anarchists calling themselves Libertarians who dominated the Republican majority in the Legislature, led recklessly by soon-to-be ex-Speaker Bill O'Brien. Together they produced a rolling public relations disaster and did great harm to the Republican brand. Guilt by association worked bottom up and primed voters to believe the worst about Lamontagne. End public education! Ban contraception!

A business tax credit bill sank when a non-germane abortion issue got attached. The reconstituted Redress of Grievances Committee gave a forum to angry dads with axes to grind against judges and ex-wives. An effort to repeal gay marriage failed when a majority of Republicans opposed it; the bill should never have come up for a vote. A state representative dropped a loaded gun during a committee hearing. A veteran woman representative claimed to have been bullied by the speaker to the point of tears. The youthful, hot-headed House Majority Leader resigned in character-driven scandal. Reporters from the capital city newspaper got the silent treatment from the speaker, a punishment usually meted out among middle schoolers.

Centrist voters - and plenty of mainstream Republicans - heard about these things and concluded the inmates were running the asylum. Meanwhile the O'Brien Legislature did everything it could to antagonize component parts of the liberal coalition. The failed, drawn-out fight over right-to-work legislation succeeded in mobilizing the public employee unions. Cutting state aid to the university system by 50 percent made it easy to organize students. Bills pertaining to abortion and gay rights threatened social moderates.

Political parties have to modernize and adapt to changing times, or they become irrelevant, their candidates lose, and their entire shared agenda goes nowhere. Sometimes modernization entails making a strategic retreat, conceding defeat on an issue and moving on. Conservatives have necessarily done this before, coming to terms with the New Deal expansion of government and civil rights. New Hampshire Democrats have done so on the issue of taking The Pledge against a broad-based sales or income tax.

New Hampshire Republicans need to do the same on social issues. Exit polling indicated Governor-elect Maggie Hassan carried women voters by 22 points, 60-38 percent. The Republican electoral strategy can't depend on getting 120 percent of middle-aged white men. Let gay marriage and existing abortion laws stand. Tell voters that regardless of your personal beliefs, you accept these issues as settled law and that you will not refight past battles. Do this, and Republican candidates have a chance to have a conversation with the women and young voters they need to persuade in order to win elections.

It shouldn't take a third kick from a mule for this lesson to sink in.

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


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