ELECTION SEASON officially began when the filing period for candidates opened June 4. In the vast majority of seats, the campaigns ended today, the last day candidates can file for office.
Both parties talk about contesting nearly all the 500-plus seats on the ballot this fall, but for all practical purposes, 70 percent of races are already over. Either the district is competitive between the parties, or it’s not. Either both parties have fielded credible candidates, or only one of them did (if that).
In the 24-member state Senate, where Republicans hold a 13-11 advantage and Democrats badly want to take back a majority, at most seven seats are in play this year.
Democrats target four seats currently held by Republicans: the Bedford-Peterborough seat held by Andy Sanborn; the Hooksett-Manchester district represented by David Boutin; the Rochester-Alton district of Sam Cataldo; and the New London-Weare seat vacated by Bob Odell’s retirement.
Sanborn (213 votes), Boutin (396), and Cataldo (637) are the three senators who won election in 2012 by the smallest margins. Sanborn and Boutin trailed Mitt Romney in their districts, a telltale sign of underperformance. Barack Obama carried Odell’s district two years ago, when Odell ran an impressive 14 points ahead of Romney. Now that the seat is open, Democrats think they can win it.
Republicans seeking to expand their majority covet seats held by Democrats in the Laconia-Franklin district represented by Andrew Hosmer; the Nashua-Hollis district where Peggy Gilmour seeks reelection; and the Manchester-Litchfield seat occupied by Donna Soucy.
Romney carried Gilmour’s district by four points two years ago. Republicans handed the Lakes Region seat to Hosmer by nominating someone who didn’t pay his taxes or his child support. Republican insiders think they have an especially strong recruit against Soucy in Manchester Board of School Committee member Robyn Dunfey.
Democrats made a statement this month when 22 of their candidates filed en masse. Noticeably absent: A candidate to run against Boutin. With former Manchester alderman and mayoral candidate Patrick Arnold declining to run, it appears Democrats have a case of candidate recruitment failure in a top-priority district. They are running rematch candidates Lee Nyquist against Sanborn and Richard Leonard against Cataldo. Neither was able to win open seats in a good year for Democrats two years ago.
New Hampshire Democrats are allergic to primaries and prefer letting party bosses pick their candidates in incense-filled backrooms. Republicans have lots of primaries. Hampton incumbent Nancy Stiles faces a stiff challenge from North Hampton businessman Steve Kenda, but the conventional wisdom is that either one is capable of holding the seat in November. Three other incumbents — Boutin, Jeanie Forrester (Meredith) and John Reagan (Deerfield) — face what look like, for now, less serious primaries. Republicans will have competitive primaries in open seats vacated by Odell, Jim Rausch in Derry and Peter Bragdon in Merrimack. The latter are strong Republican districts where the nominees will win in November.
That’s fewer primaries than promised by the Republican Liberty Caucus. For months, this group talked big about primarying as many as 10 of the 13 Republican incumbents and running as many as 20 candidates for state Senate. So far, the caucus hasn’t backed up the bluster.
A big wildcard is Americans for Prosperity, the well-funded conservative group more interested in enforcing ideological purity among Republicans than in defeating Democrats. AFP and the like-minded Citizens for a Strong New Hampshire are hammering Boutin and Stiles with mail pieces and radio ads for being insufficiently conservative. AFP’s independent expenditures tipped the scales in a couple districts last cycle. Cataldo and Hosmer owe their seats to AFP, though for different reasons. AFP propped Cataldo up in his primary two years ago, and helped nominate an unelectable candidate against Hosmer. AFP’s support, or opposition, could be determinative in some primaries.
Republican chances of gaining the seat they need for a majority on the Executive Council, now split 3-2 Democrat, may hinge on which candidates emerge from primaries in the Nashua- and Manchester-based districts.
The State House has seen huge shifts with the tide in recent elections. One possible scenario: Democrats retake the Senate and Republicans retake the House. Stalemate in Concord? Get used to it.
Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, is former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. He can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @FergusCullen.