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With GOP Sweep Of State House, N.H. Democrats Assess What Happened

N.H. State House
Allegra Boverman for NHPR

While Democrats won every federal race on the New Hampshire ballot last week, Republicans were the big winners on the state level. That includes gaining new majorities in the state House of Representatives, state Senate and the Executive Council.

And that's led to some soul searching and finger pointing within the state Democratic Party in recent days about what went wrong and how to address it. 

NHPR's Morning Edition host Rick Ganley spoke with senior political reporter Josh Rogers about what he's heard from state Democrats over the past few days.

Rick Ganley: So remind us where things stand in the State House after last week.

Josh Rogers: Well, we can start with the Executive Council. Heading into Election Day, Democrats held a 3-2 majority there, which over the last year has really been important for them in terms of checking Gov. Chris Sununu, limiting his ability to appoint top state officials and judges, and also limiting his administration when it came to handing out state contracts and spending what is literally billions of state dollars. But now the council, barring changes from any recounts, looks like it's going to be 4-1 Republican majority.

If you want to move to the state Senate, that was 14-10 Democratic majority. It's flipped to a 14-10 Republican majority. Some of these races are undergoing recounts, but is not an exaggeration to say that a four seat Republican cushion would give Sununu significant muscle when it comes to getting his way on policy. The same thing goes in the New Hampshire House, where a Democratic majority will soon be a 25-seat Republican edge. And all these changes do make it likely that if Republicans can remain united, and that is a big if, but if that's the case, Democrats will largely be on the sidelines when it comes to decision-making in Concord over the next two years.

Rick Ganley: We've been watching those numbers come into focus at the end of last week as the votes continue to be counted. And you've been asking folks from both parties what happened, why the Democratic success of the top of the ballot and then such a dramatic reversal in the state level races. And what have you been hearing?

Josh Rogers: Well, it certainly depends on who you're talking to. But I do think one thing that's important to bear in mind is that in a high turnout election, like the one we saw last week, current district maps in New Hampshire, which were drawn by Republicans a decade ago, do favor Republicans. That's perhaps the most dramatic in the state Senate and on the Executive Council. And some of the seats in the Senate that the Democrats won two years ago when turnout overall was lower, and certainly Republican turnout was lower and Democratic enthusiasm was higher, were reclaimed by Republicans this year in a universally high turnout situation.

I mean, we can look at one particular, District 23. Two years ago, Jon Morgan, a Democratic newcomer, beat incumbent Republican Bill Gannon. And as you remember, anger among Democrats over President Trump was quite high in 2018. That district includes one relatively large block of potential Democratic votes, Exeter, which turned out big two years ago. And turnout in some of the outlying Republican leaning towns in the district was a lot more slack. That wasn't the case this year. Both parties did get their base out to the polls and Gannon won back his seat. And you can see similar dynamics at work in a handful of other districts in the state Senate, and that helped flip the Senate back to Republican control.

Rick Ganley: It is just gerrymandered legislative districts, Josh, or are progressives seeing a bigger failure here?

Josh Rogers: Well, there were certainly tactical differences between Democrats and Republicans this year. Republicans really tried to maintain traditional face-to-face campaigning throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. They knocked on doors. They held public events. They dropped off campaign fliers by hand and so on. Democrats really decided to rein that in consciously. They skipped a lot of in-person campaigning.

I've been told that local candidates were essentially told by the state party, with the backing of the Biden campaign, and there is a guidance document on this, to avoid in-person campaigning. That was certainly due to public health concerns around the pandemic. And, there's a performative aspect to this too. Democrats wanted to be seen as following public health guidance to try to draw a contrast with what they saw as the reckless campaign behavior of President Trump, with the huge outdoor rallies, and of Republicans in general.

And it seems that strategy could have worked fine for Joe Biden or Jeanne Shaheen: Democrats who had no need to introduce themselves to voters in New Hampshire, who have money to go on TV, to buy tons of Facebook ads. But say you're a first-term state senator, or somebody running for state rep and largely anonymous to many people in your district; campaigning on the phone or on Zoom is not going to help you make an impression, particularly among voters not already predisposed to back Democrats.

I've heard variants of this from numerous people in the past few days: that they're thinking that the Democrats did kind of hamstring themselves by discouraging down ballot candidates from hitting the streets and meeting directly with voters. And there's some messaging questions, too: Did the Democrats have a significantly progressive message once you got beyond "we must defeat Donald Trump," which was clearly a potent message.

Rick Ganley: So the well-known candidates seemed to do well this year. The candidate who did best was Republican Gov. Chris Sununu. Can we give him credit for lifting his fellow Republicans in those lesser known races?

Josh Rogers: I mean, it's hard to quantify exactly how much credit Sununu deserves, but he is popular. I mean, he received an immense amount of votes last week. And the governor certainly did do a lot of campaigning, in the flesh and via digital means with Facebook ads and that sort of thing, to really work to lift lesser known Republicans to victory.

And it's also true that Republicans in general did a better job this year in raising money for down ballot races. I'm thinking particularly in the House. In a lot of recent elections, Democrats have often had a big financial edge in these more low-end races, due to more aggressive state party fundraising. And this year, House Republican leaders did try to blunt that advantage. They paired that with messaging, accurate or not, that sought to portray all Democrats running for seats in Concord as basically income tax advocates. And that may have had an effect. Hard to say how much, but it's certainly something that I've heard from people on both sides of the aisle.

You know, the flip side of that is there are Democrats who have told me that the Democratic Party messaging was was insufficiently aggressive from the top, that rather than just being "we need to get Donald Trump out of the White House." That there wasn't a lot for voters to grab onto to get excited. It was essentially: "Stop Trump, stop Sununu." The governor proved to be popular across the board, and that message didn't translate down to Democratic gains at the bottom of the ballot.

Rick Ganley: So where does that leave the New Hampshire Democratic Party? Is this going to be the year of real soul searching. What do you think is going to happen now?

Josh Rogers: Well, certainly there are progressive elements within the Democratic Party's coalition that certainly hope it will be, people who feel that maybe there needs to be more diversity among candidates, and party leaders and in the policy priorities. And young people, some of them told me they felt shut out from decision making when it comes to the party's platform and candidate grooming, that sort of thing. I mean, Ray Buckley has been chairman of the party for a long time, and he does seem to get this. He's promised what he's termed an "autopsy" of last week's results and a plan on how to respond.

But the entire federal delegation and Joe Biden did win New Hampshire by decent margins. That's no small thing. Buckley himself remains plenty respected and also feared within his party. I'm not aware of any candidate actively seeking to challenge him at this point, and you really don't get the sense, at least now, that the local Democratic donor class sees any need for the party to make a hard pivot.

But it's also true, in this political moment, party leaders maybe need to be careful about being too cavalier when progressive, younger or more diverse Democrats seek change. You know, being too cavalier could be risky. We've seen that dynamic play out across the country over the past few years. It hasn't come to Democratic politics in New Hampshire, at least not yet, but there are some party activists who think that may be due. And last week's State House results, the down ballot results in particular, could spur it.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
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