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As Rural N.H. Changes, Democrats Eye Voters in Republican Strongholds

Sarah Gibson / NHPR

  Democratic presidential hopefuls are campaigning all over New Hampshire, and they’re spending a lot of time in areas once considered Republican strongholds. The candidates are hoping to capitalize on a demographic shift underway in rural New Hampshire that could have big political implications.

One of those places where Democrats are placing their hopes is Wolfeboro, a reliably Republican town in Carroll County. On a snowy Saturday night, over 600 people waited in line here to see Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Patricia Pustell, who chairs the Greater Ossipee Democratic committee, said 10 years ago, Carroll County Democrats couldn’t have imagined a crowd this big.

“There was an old saying: ‘It takes courage to be a Carroll County Democrat,' because there were so few of us,” Pustell said. “Now there’s a lot of us.”

“A lot” is relative; Carroll County leans Republican, but in the past 20 years, the number of registered Democrats here has increased by 80 percent, while the number of registered Republicans has been relatively stable. Many attribute this in part to liberal retirees like Pustell, who moved here 14 years ago.

“It’s beautiful, and many people pay a lot of money to come here, but it’s a great place to retire,” she said.

Newcomers from out of state are driving population growth in Carroll County.

Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire, said that nearly 70 percent of residents here were born outside of New Hampshire, and plenty bring their politics with them.

Christian Boudman moved with his family to Wolfeboro 12 years ago. He runs a visual effects company from his lakehouse, where he helped make the special effects for the hit HBO series Game of Thrones. He said the only downside of running his business in rural New Hampshire is the spotty Internet access.

“The upside is I get to live in a beautiful place like Wolfeboro, in the middle of the woods next to a beautiful lake and do what I used to do in Los Angeles, which is terrific,” he said.

A series of reports from the Carsey School finds that more people are moving to places like Carroll County for the lifestyle and to retire. These migration hot spots are called “recreational counties.”

Johnson counts about 300 of them across the United States, and said Carroll County is a perfect example.

“They’re often near lakes or scenic areas like mountains, and they’re one of the fastest growing parts of rural America," he said.

Recreational counties, unlike traditional rural counties that depend on industries like logging, mining, or agriculture, revolve largely around amenities and outdoor activities.

“In a recreational county the entire economy or a good bit of it is based around people having fun,” said Dante Scala, a political scientist at University of New Hampshire who researches voting demographics in the state. He says the growth in recreational and rural counties is changing New Hampshire’s political map.

“The old-style Yankee Republican, frugal conservative - they’re passing away," Scala said. "And that Yankee Republican is being replaced by, say, a Baby Boomer who always voted faithfully Democratic in the state of New Jersey, and now they’ve moved to New Hampshire, and there’s another registered Democrat on the books."

Scala says the Republican Party still has a lot of support in Carroll County, but its growth over the last few decades has been concentrated in densely populated southern counties, like Hillsborough and Rockingham.

“Ironically, the Republicans have become more concentrated in urban/suburban counties in New Hampshire, whereas Democrats demonstrate more geographic diversity in their base,” he said.

(Related story: Where They Stand: Rural Policy At the Heart of Many 2020 Candidates' Platforms)

And Democrats are spending money and time cultivating that base. Edith DesMarais, a Democratic state representative from Wolfeboro, has been spearheading party operations here for the past 20 years. In the 2018 election, Democrats in Carroll County won big.

“Everything north of Ossipee, all of the local state representatives are now Democratic for the first time ever, and when I won my election, I was the first [Wolfeboro Democrat] in over 100 years,” she said.

NHPR’s elections database doesn’t go back 100 years, but it shows that DesMarais was the the first Democratic representative from Wolfeboro in at least half a century.

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DeMarais attributes some of her success to the increase in liberal retirees, but she also said she got support from longtime independents and Republicans, who still identify as conservative but feel a rift with the Republican Party over President Trump.

Now that she’s a state representative, DesMarais is making sure Wolfeboro is a stop for Democrats on the presidential campaign trail. So far, she and other local party leaders have brought eight Democratic presidential candidates to town.

“We’ve made a major effort to reach out to them and tell them they might win by 1,000 votes, and that 1,000 votes might come from Wolfeboro,” she said.

But Republican Sen. Jeb Bradley, who's represented Wolfeboro in Congress and the State House for nearly three decades, said Democrats might be overestimating their momentum. He said the priorities for most Carroll County voters are still traditional conservative ones.

“The pendulum always swings back and forth,” he said, “but I feel like Carroll County tends to be: They don’t want income tax, they don’t want a sales tax, they expect cost-effective and efficient government.”

Bradley predicts Democratic presidential candidates can campaign all they like in Wolfeboro, but come general election season, Republicans will win Carroll County.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.

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