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Heading into election year, N.H. Republicans navigate clash of fact and conspiracy

N.H. Republican Party Chairman Steve Stepanek chats with attendees at a fundraiser with former Vice President Mike Pence, Dec. 8, 2021.
Josh Rogers
N.H. Republican Party Chairman Steve Stepanek chats with attendees at a fundraiser with former Vice President Mike Pence, Dec. 8, 2021.

When State Republican Chairman Steve Stepanek spoke alongside former Vice President Mike Pence in Manchester last week, he stuck to a time-honored approach: Electing Republicans, Stepanek argued, would keep taxes and spending low.

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Outcomes like a recent win in a special election race to fill a vacant New Hampshire House seat prove the GOP is entering boom times, he told the crowd.

“We put together a huge win that is pointing towards 2022 as a very, very good year for Republicans,” Stepanek said.

In some ways, the New Hampshire Republican Party is as strong as it’s been in years. Republicans are now redrawing the state’s political maps, which will almost certainly give them a structural advantage designed to last through 2030.

And Gov. Chris Sununu, who helped lift Republicans to their current State House majorities, will again top the ticket in 2022. Add sagging local poll numbers for President Joe Biden, and there are many reasons to believe next year could be a good one for the New Hampshire GOP.

But at the same time, there are worrying signs. The party lacks a clear leading candidate in a U.S. Senate race that could decide the balance of power on Capitol Hill.

And a larger dilemma remains: How will Republican leaders balance the demands of voters open to embracing conspiracy theory with right-of-center voters with more traditional politics?

Outside the polls in Derry last week, candidate Jodi Nelson was quick to predict the win Stepanek touted. Derry is a mostly Republican town, and she based her campaign around fealty to the party platform and Sununu.

“I would support the Republican agenda and keep things moving in a positive direction, “ she said.

Nelson’s campaign worked hard to mobilize conservatives like Dave John, who said he felt duty-bound to back her.

“People don’t remember where we’ve come from and what we are all about,” John said.

John’s fingers worried the brim of his Grateful Dead baseball cap as he recalled why he first decided to support Donald Trump in 2016 – almost casually. But John said once Trump was in office, he was increasingly persuaded by what he considered Trump’s belief in liberty.

But John says he’s been put off by Sununu during the governor’s time in office. John criticized what he described as Sununu’s willingness to crack down on people who differed with him on COVID vaccine policy – most specifically, the arrest of demonstrators who protested New Hampshire taking federal COVID vaccine money.

“I think Gov. Sununu has a lot of things to answer for,” John said.

Rifts between activist voters and mainstream party leaders are nothing new in politics.

But pitched disputes over basic facts are rarer. John, for instance, insists when the state took federal vaccine aid it agreed to comply with the Biden administration’s COVID policies; in fact, New Hampshire has sued to strike down federal vaccine mandates.

But for New Hampshire Republicans, that rift between reality and false – even if strongly held – opinion, is becoming more common. And navigating that divide is testing the party.

When Republicans gathered in Rye last for the Seacoast Republican Women’s Christmas luncheon, the scene was festive. In many ways, the political talk was of a traditional partisan sort.

“Russia and China are pushing back because they can. President Biden is a laughing stock,” Portsmouth retiree Sue Polidua noted at one point.

But politics of a Trump-inflected, conspiratorial tenor, were also ever-present. Under every chair was a gift-wrapped book: Offerings included works by the likes of Tucker Carlson, Ann Coulter, and Corey Lewandowski.

And while Polidura, who ran unsuccessfully for state Senate last year, had a lot to say about the economy and foreign policy, she also lingered on what she called the “cloud” enveloping the Biden presidency due to persistent beliefs of many in her party that the election was tainted by false allegations of fraud.

She quickly rattled off specific claims, for instance, about ballot mishandling in Wisconsin, which have been widely debunked by fact-checkers. She didn’t claim they were true but does insist they were never properly put to rest.

“We have so much information going on out there, so many stories, coming from so many directions, that people don’t know what to trust anymore,” Polidura said.

And to some deeply involved in politics, the scope of the mistrust only feels like it’s growing.

Donna Slack, of Greenland, whose term as president of the Seacoast Republican Women was ending with this party, said she’s been active in Republican politics for close to half a century.

She says the conversations at lunches like this aren’t what they used to be – not simply due to ideological rifts, but also over vehement disagreements over basic facts.

Slack says it can be hard to process.

“I had a lot of friends who were Democrats; I can’t even have a conversation anymore. And even some of the republicans, there’s just been a difference of opinions,” Slack said. “But it’s a terrible time. The climate is terrible.”

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
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