How Primary Results Could Reshape New Hampshire Democrats' Politics

Sep 10, 2018

Credit NHPR File Photo

Primary Day can simply be the day when voters choose who will represent their parties during the general elections.

But primaries can also shape - or reshape - a party, and sometimes in lasting ways. This year could be one of those times for the New Hampshire Democratic Party.

Joining All Things Considered host Peter Biello to talk about these particular primary politics is Josh Rogers.

Note: This transcript has been edited for clarity

So we have two major Democratic primaries this year, in the race for governor and in the race for the 1st congressional district. How could these races change the Democratic Party?

I think one way to look at these primaries is that they are in a sense posing two different questions, but let’s start with a big similarity. In both races, for governor and for Congress in the 1st C.D., New Hampshire's top elected officials quickly coalesced around two candidates: In the governor’s race, Molly Kelly, and in the 1st CD, Chris Pappas.

[N.H. Voter Resources: What You Need to Know Before Heading to the Polls on Primary Day]

I can’t think of a year when that’s happened to the extent it has in 2018. Part of that may be a quirk of the political calendar; neither of New Hampshire’s senators are up for reelection this year, which frees them up to get involved. There is also the fact that in both races, you have what you could call a real party regular running.

Both Molly Kelly and Chris Pappas have been loyal to Democratic Party’s power structure, by serving party leaders, winning election to lower office and adopting the electoral model set by Jeanne Shaheen. That is, be liberal on social issues, staunch on abortion rights, but more moderate on fiscal matters.

So by that do you mean “take the pledge” to oppose a sales or income tax?

That is part of it, and while neither Democrat running for governor backs a new broad-based tax, the pledge kind of does define their race. In Molly Kelly you have someone who never took it before running for governor, and in Steve Marchand you have someone who makes much of not taking it because he says a cultural change is needed, that Democrats need to “let it rip.” If there is anything New Hampshire’s Democratic governor’s haven’t done - we are talking about Jeanne Shaheen, John Lynch, Maggie Hassan - it's "let it rip."

Now Shaheen and Hassan have both been campaigning for Kelly. Their message is, "Molly is like us?" 

Less that - though that is kind of implied - than, "We know her and trust her." And they do. All of them, also, remember, endorsed Hilary Clinton in the 2016 New Hampshire primary. And we know how that race went. Steve Marchand, who supported Bernie Sanders, is certainly trying to tease out the parallel, but I don’t think you can say his campaign really channeling Sanders so much – although Marchand is trying to get or appear to be on Kelly’s left on every issue. It's more that he’s operating wholly outside the power structure that New Hampshire’s most successful Democrats have built.

And should he win - and no one I’m talking to is ruling that out - it would really upend the model for Democrats running for governor here.

There hasn’t been a nominee who hasn’t taken the pledge since 2002. That election didn’t end well for Democrats: Republican Craig Benson trounced the pro-income tax Mark Fernald. But the discussion on taxes is starting to change within the party, and that could intensify depending on what happens tomorrow.

So this race could be a referendum on the political model that party leaders believe have served Democrats for years?

That’s one way to see it

What about the other big primary?

Well in the 1st Congressional district, you’ve got a big field of Democrats, 11 candidates, but in one of the perceived frontrunners, Maura Sullivan, you’ve got someone who just moved to New Hampshire and maybe moved here simply to run for office. And she’s running a campaign that’s almost airlifted in.

Pretty much all of her money comes from elsewhere, and her biggest support comes from outside New Hampshire.

So the idea that the way to do things here is to stoke grassroots support and rely on community support, that’s not Sullivan’s approach?

If it were her approach, it probably would not work, because she has few ties to the state. She is a former Marine who worked in the Obama VA. But she, and the outside groups that back, her have spent big.

And then you have the other perceived frontrunner, Chris Pappas, who’s been in New Hampshire politics pretty much his entire adult life. He's served as a state rep, a country treasurer, and an executive councilor. Plus, his family owns the Backroom in Manchester, certainly one of the most popular restaurants in the state. Yet he could still lose to a big-spending newcomer who hasn’t really excited voters.

And that’s why you seen Shaheen, Hassan, and even former Gov. John Lynch, who’s largely abandoned party politics since leaving the governor’s office, out there working things for Pappas. Whether voters care about these efforts - for Pappas and the similar ones on Kelly’s behalf - is hard to know.

And another thing is that since neither Kelly’s nor Pappas' campaigns have spent money on tracking polls, they are kind of flying blind, without a clear sense of how voters feel about these races. Which is another reason these races are interesting in the ways they are testing what’s been the Democratic m.o. for years in New Hampshire.

Maybe the status quo wins. But if it doesn’t, lots of Democrats will be looking at the world differently.