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State Republicans, Looking For Footing, See Hope In N.H. Primary Rally Cry

The New Hampshire House meets this week to vote on dozens of bills, prime among them is a state budget full of conservative policies.

The conservative budget plan reflects the fact that Republicans now enjoy unified control of the New Hampshire State House. But beyond that, the party's health is less clear.

The state Republican Party in many ways is trying to find its footing as Democrats continue to dominate most state-level elections, including the entire congressional delegation. NHPR's Annie Ropeik spoke with senior political reporter Josh Rogers about a Republican fundraiser he attended this week on Facebook live that offers a glimpse into this political moment for the state GOP.

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Annie Ropeik: So, a campaign fundraiser in a socially distanced era. Take us to that moment. What did you see? What might it tell us about the state of the New Hampshire Republican Party?

Josh Rogers: Well, envision a Zoom call, but basically, you know, Republican New Hampshire House candidate Bill Boyd was the man of the hour during this fundraiser. He's vying along with Democrat Wendy Thomas, for the House seat that was held by former New Hampshire House Speaker Dick Hinch before Hinch died from COVID-19. You know, the interesting part of this evening, though, was the participation of Republicans who have eyes on bigger prizes and state representative races.

Kelly Ayotte, former U.S. senator from New Hampshire, was there. She's kept a pretty low profile since she lost to Maggie Hassan back in 2016, a race where really she struggled to keep then candidate Donald Trump at arm's length. Ayotte's been edging her way back into politics a bit over the past few years. And, you know, many Republicans expect her to run for something next year -- you know, governor, U.S. senator, again, basically whatever office Chris Sununu doesn't run for.

You know, Matt Mowers also participated in this fundraiser. He's a younger Republican who ran and lost the 1st Congressional District race, running basically as a full-throated Trump supporter. That didn't pan out for him, obviously, but he's, you know, vying to remain relevant in D.C., where he mostly works, and in New Hampshire. Mowers actually organized the fundraiser for Boyd.

Annie Ropeik: So did former President Trump play much of a presence at this fundraiser at all?

Josh Rogers: Well, I was a bit surprised by this, but no, barely any mention of the name Trump or invocation, really, of his political brand. And, you know, that also went for the headliner of this evening event, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton. Cotton is pretty conservative guy and a very staunch supporter of President Trump over the past four years. But Cotton didn't try to play that up during the fundraiser. You know, Cotton is expected to give a long look at running for president in 2024. And for Republicans, that race is almost certainly going to come through New Hampshire. So if Cotton is an indication or at least his behavior on this night, you know, a big Trumpian message may not be what people running for president next time are going to be highlighting.

Annie Ropeik: So if not Trump, then what is the main message that you heard at this event?

Josh Rogers: Well, there was, you know, a generic Republican message of small government and the argument that Democrats are out of touch culturally, mainly. You know, this was all in service of a relatively modest but qualified candidate for state representative. But, you know, the sharpest rhetoric of the night was really reserved for an area that, for me, or really anyone else who's observed New Hampshire politics was, you know, sort of a surprise. And that was the risk purportedly posed to the New Hampshire presidential primary by Democrats.

You know, the argument is spurred by a Democratic election law bill pending in D.C. All the Democrats in New Hampshire delegation back that bill. But H.R. 1, as this is called, isn't about the primary, but it definitely would federalize a lot of election policy. And it certainly touches on a lot of contested ground when it comes to election law -- campaign finance matters, ballot access, reform around redistricting and gerrymandering. Republicans certainly see a winning message in lumping a purported risk to New Hampshire's primary into that mix. You know, they could be right.

And, you know, they have an interesting ally in New Hampshire, Secretary of State Bill Gardner. For decades, Gardner's obviously fought any incursion, real or perceived, on New Hampshire's electoral sovereignty. And Gardner actually came up more than did former President Trump at this fundraiser. And for Republican Party Chairman Stephen Stepanek, the bottom line message was quite blunt.

Stephen Stepanek: The Democrats appear to have turned their back on New Hampshire and turned their back on the first in the nation primary. So we are working hard to make that point.

Josh Rogers: That was New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman Stephen Stepanek. And while, you know, the delivery was a bit canned, the message was pretty fresh and actually pretty remarkable, because in good times and bad, New Hampshire's two major political parties have really worked not to weaponize the first in the nation primary for partisan purposes. And that seems to have changed, and the New Hampshire GOP even has an attack ad up on television. And I should note, the Democrats say the idea that they're abandoning the primary by supporting this election law bill is absurd.

Annie Ropeik: I feel like we just got out of the last primary. The next one isn't for another three years, by my count. Do you expect this fight to persist until then?

Josh Rogers: Well, maybe not this precise fight, but there could certainly be a big fight within the national Democratic Party. The argument there among Democrats is, again, a familiar one, that New Hampshire and Iowa, the two states at the front of the nominating calendar, lack racial and ethnic diversity and that other states, maybe they deserve a shot at the front of the calendar. Lots of power players in national Democratic politics are maneuvering to knock New Hampshire out of its place. And a lot of political insiders here see that as a threat.

But there's also certainly polling that indicates that many average people don't much care about being first in the nation. You know, Republicans obviously think stoking concern on this matter might call the loyalty of the Democratic delegation into question. It's kind of is it New Hampshire or party bosses kind of thing. And, you know, while this may not amount to a post Trump vision for the GOP in New Hampshire or nationally, it's something that local Republicans are certainly acting, at least some of them, are acting as if it's a start.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.

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