In some ways, New Hampshire’s election results amount to a ringing endorsement of the status quo in state politics. Incumbents Jeanne Shaheen, Chris Pappas and Annie Kuster all won reelection to their seats in the U.S. Senate and Congress. And Gov. Chris Sununu easily won a third term.
But go down the ballot a bit, and the situation is different.
Republicans made serious gains in the Legislature and Executive Council, likely seizing control of those bodies from Democrats. NHPR’s senior political reporter Josh Rogers discussed those results, and what they might mean for politics and policy in Concord next year, with All Things Considered host Emily Quirk.
Emily Quirk: So, I know some races are still not yet officially called, but what do we know about State House races at this point?
Josh Rogers: Sununu won reelection; no surprise there. His margin of victory was among the largest in the past couple decades of gubernatorial races. Beyond that, there were quite a few surprises. Let’s start with the Executive Council.
Heading into Election Day, Democrats held a 3-2 majority there. That’s allowed them to really deny Sununu several key priorities over the past two years, not least his effort to name a new chief justice of the state Supreme Court. Sununu has been bent on putting Attorney General Gordon MacDonald in that job. In fact, he first nominated MacDonald to that post more than a year ago, but the Democrats on the council rejected MacDonald’s nomination, in large part because of his past working for GOP politicians. Sununu’s stated plan had always been to wait for another council, one more amenable to his desires, and with a Republican majority, a Justice MacDonald certainly seems like a real possibility early in 2021.
Over in the Legislature, things are still coming together, with some races still not finalized. But from what I’m seeing and hearing, it seems all but certain that Republicans will take a majority in both the House and Senate. That would be a big shift from the past two years, when Sununu had to contend with Democratic majorities and there were pretty constant clashes over policy: things like business taxes, energy reform, even how best to spend the pandemic relief money from the federal government.
Quirk: Given that Democrats did pretty well at the top of the ballot in New Hampshire -- Joe Biden over President Trump; Shaheen, Kuster and Pappas all winning their races with fairly comfortable margins -- why the swing towards Republicans down ballot?
Rogers: A lot of people are trying to figure that out today. I’ve heard any number of possible reasons: One thing to bear in mind is the legislative maps themselves. They were drawn by Republicans a decade ago and are by design intended to favor Republicans. Gerrymandered, in a word. According to UNH political scientist Andy Smith, who has polled these races for years, for Democrats to break even with Republicans in legislative races, they need to start with more than 50 percent of the popular vote; they are, essentially, starting several points behind, since the districts give Republicans an advantage in how they crowd voters into favorable lines. In a presidential year, when both parties are seeing motivated voters turn out in high numbers, that makes things even harder for Democrats. And I looked at the returns in some of the state Senate districts where Republicans appear to have picked up new seats: The margin of victory is just a few hundred votes in more than one case.
Another theory I’ve heard: Some people believe Democrats’ decision to rely more on remote or virtual campaigning this year, while the GOP largely stuck to traditional face to face canvassing, was a factor. That could especially be a factor in these legislative races where the candidates are often not well known to voters, and in person campaigning may have more of an impact.
Some Democrats also told me that many of their voters were motivated this year largely by voting against Donald Trump. And, in some races, there may not have been a lot of follow through further down the ballot - that some Democratic voters just skipped those State House races altogether. We’ll be looking more closely at those numbers as they’re finalized, but especially in some of these closer races, that could make the difference.
Finally, another factor is likely the success and popularity of Gov. Sununu. He put that popularity to work for many down ballot candidates, appearing with them on the campaign trail or in mailers in the final weeks of the campaign. And when you collect as many votes as he did - his campaign speculated that he may end up with more votes than any candidate for New Hampshire governor in history - some of that has to rub off on those fellow Republicans he campaigned with.
Quirk: So what’s this mean for 2021 in the State House?
Rogers: This won’t be the first order of business, but one big impact is this means Republicans are likely to have unfettered control over drawing the next set of legislative district maps. The state is due for another round of redistricting in 2021. In other areas, the governor has already tipped his hand a bit. Last night, he said he’ll be looking at further tax cuts: trimming business taxes, maybe the Meals and Rooms tax. The effect of the GOP majority will also reverberate across a range of policy debates - school funding reform, energy and environmental policy, and, this is always a big one, the next state budget will essentially be a Republican-authored document.
But it’s worth noting that the state will be facing severe financial pressure from the pandemic and ongoing economic downturn in the coming year. There’s a bit of “be careful what you wish for” at play, perhaps. When a single party is in power in Concord, things can get testy in weird ways. Intraparty factions come to the fore, and it can be hard for a governor like Sununu, who fancies himself a steady manager, to keep everyone in line. You saw some of that in Sununu’s first term, when Republicans ran the Legislature, and there were big fights over Right-to-Work legislation and the state budget. You saw it too, more than a decade ago, when Democrat John Lynch was governor with his party running the Legislature. Back then, tensions over tax policy, and how far away from the middle the party was willing to push things, that certainly caused Lynch some headaches. And this dynamic will be something Sununu will have to navigate in a very different way than he related to the Legislature over the past two years.