How Can Granite State Republicans Breathe New Life into the Grand Old Party?The political winds blow hard in a presidential election year, but for New Hampshire Republicans 2008 was a like a political twister, taking the roof off the historically conservative bastion. We asked long-time conservative political insider Dean Dexter to look behind the scenes to see if there’s any more change in the wind, or if GOP talking points and plans for the future are just so much hot air.
As the new year arrives and the nation prepares for what will surely be a very festive presidential inauguration indeed, New Hampshire Republicans, like their compatriots around most of the country, will be found where they’ve been since their November 2008 election day disaster: scattered about, commiserating among themselves about the party’s future. The mood: heavy, but hopeful.
Certainly the Grand Old Party has not suffered such an ignoble routing since the 1960s when they lost the governorship after nearly 40 years when Manchester’s John W. King won the Corner Office, holding it for three terms. Then, two years later, former Democratic Laconia mayors, Tom McIntyre and Ollie Huot, went to Washington in the big Lyndon Johnson landslide of 1964.
Due to Republican infighting, McIntyre took a U.S. Senate seat away from the GOP after a quarter century, and kept it for 16 years. Huot, relatively unknown outside the Lakes Region, did the unthinkable by pulling a Carol Shea-Porter on a “safe” Republican incumbent in the First Congressional District.
The situation today, however, is more bleak for Republicans. Not only have they failed to regain the state’s two congressional seats lost two years ago and the governorship for a third time, they’ve also lost a U.S. Senator, once considered a rising star on the national stage. Not only that, for 100 years the party control of the state’s 400-member House of Representatives, most of those years the state Senate, too, until two years ago, that is, when the Capitol Dome went totally blue. And so it remains after yet another election.
Still, there is a breath of optimism beginning to float up from the Republican rubble.
One old party warrior, who has reappeared on the scene after years in private life is former three-term governor John H. Sununu, father of defeated incumbent U.S. Senator John E. Sununu.
As of this writing there is talk that he may be a candidate for state party chairman. But whether he takes an official post or merely paces the sidelines like a veteran football coach, the elder Sununu’s presence comes at a time when the party needs a strong figure. Never afraid of a good political tussle, Sununu could be a force to boost party morale and unity at a critical time.
“I’m absolutely optimistic about the future of the party in the next two years,” the ex-governor said recently. “I am also extremely concerned that the Democrats are ruining the state of New Hampshire. They are either consciously or unconsciously turning the state into a clone of Massachusetts.”
Added the former White House chief of staff to the first President Bush: “The Republican Party has to do a better job of making clear what the differences really are between Democrats and Republicans. The Democrats have been able to fool the public by taking The Pledge (against passing a sales or income tax), and have given the impression that they, too, are in favor of small government. They are either being deceptive or don’t understand that the Pledge stands for more than taxes, it goes hand in hand with a commitment to keep spending down.”
“They’re spending like drunken sailors,” Sununu says of the Democratic-controlled Legislature and governor. “This 17 percent increase in spending in the last biennium has created a huge deficit, that has brought on a bubble of funding obligations that has plunged the state into a financial crisis.”
GOP political consultant Dave Carney of Hancock, a former White House political director, says the Governor’s unwillingness to hold state spending in check is being felt at the local level: “Lynch’s permanent campaign to abdicate leadership will grind to a halt this legislative session. At town meetings across the state this coming March, the cost of avoiding serious issues facing our state will be painfully clear.”
Party Chairman Fergus Cullen believes the party’s future is about broadening its message: “The math is pretty simple. New Hampshire is 30 percent Republican, 30 percent Democrat and 40 percent Independent. We can’t win elections if we only appeal to the Republican base. We need to expand the issues we talk about. We need a positive agenda for education, health care and conservation — issues that are important to swing voters. I’m not saying we need to moderate our positions, but it can’t just be about taxes and social issues.” Cullen also believes Republicans need to get more proactive at the Statehouse: “They need to be more aggressive in taking on Governor Lynch when he is wrong, as he so often is on spending and many state issues.”
Former Republican State Chairman David Gosselin of Conway, a candidate for Republican National Chairman, says the party “cannot write off California and New York after the primaries, and see its candidate for president pull out of Michigan in late October because of no money and expect to remain a viable national party.” As for New Hampshire, he says, “The best thing for the state is to elect young John Sununu (the former Senator) as governor in two years.”
Rep. Fran Wendelboe of New Hampton, a party activist, is encouraged that despite the overall shellacking in November, the GOP picked up 17 seats in Concord and believes it would have regained the House absent what she believes was the coattail effect of the Barack Obama campaign on state races.
Conservative Franklin Mayor Ken Merrifield believes, in the end, the Democratic Party’s big spending agenda will be its downfall, but wonders how Republicans will respond if that happens. “I point to the recent success of the property tax cap initiatives in Dover and Rochester. Democratic voters embraced these initiatives, too. When the party in power fails to deliver, will Republicans embrace a low-tax, job-creating, quality-of-life strategy that makes sense to voters?”
Says Sununu, the ex-governor: “There is a real difference between Democrats and Republicans, and shame on us for not getting the word out.”
Sparks of life yet in the old elephant. NHThe Granite Think TankOur state has produced or sheltered some of the most outspoken and provocative
representatives of conservatism. Here are the thoughts of a couple of famous Republican opinion makers.P.J. O’RourkePeterborough’s P.J. O’Rourke is a famous satirist, prolific author and a regular guest on National Public Radio’s “Wait Wait ... Don’t Tell Me!” In his Nov. 11 column for the Weekly Standard titled “We Blew It,” O’Rourke outlined a litany of failures of the GOP with this one wry but hopeful note:
“It's not hard to move a voting bloc. And it should be especially easy to move voters to the right. Sensible adults are conservative in most aspects of their private lives. If this weren't so, imagine driving on I-95: The majority of drivers are drunk, stoned, making out, or watching TV, while the rest are trying to calculate the size of their carbon footprints on the backs of Whole Foods receipts while negotiating lane changes.
“People are even more conservative if they have children. Nobody with kids is a liberal, except maybe one pothead in Marin County. Everybody wants his or her children to respect freedom, exercise responsibility, be honest, get educated, have opportunities and own a bunch of guns. (The last is optional and includes, but is not limited to, me, my friends in New Hampshire, and Sarah Palin.)”
O’Rourke’s latest book is “On the Wealth of Nations: Books That Changed the World,” Atlantic Books 2007Dinesh D’SouzaAuthor, speaker and Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza established his conservative bona fides during his contentious years as editor of the Dartmouth Review. He describes himself as a product of the Reagan generation that was attracted to politics in the ’80s and eventually became the victim of its own success. He provided the following remarks in a recent phone interview:
“The center has shifted a lot since I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth. The great goals of Reagan, the defeat of Marxism-Leninism have been largely achieved. In many ways the Republicans are still running on the Reagan engine. Every campaign is warmed-over Reaganism. They just cross out the Cold War and write in Islamo-Fascism. What they forget is that Reaganism was a specific adaptation to the challenges of that time and not new principles but simply new applications of those principles to the situation. Reaganism preceded Reagan. Missile defense, supply side economics — Reagan came up with none of those things. He grabbed them and ran with them.
“For Republicans to regain power requires three things: It requires principles to be formulated, and that's an intellectual job. They need to be translated into language and then they need an effective leader who can take those ideas and express them. The core ideas have not changed, i.e. that the world is a dangerous place with bad guys around who you cannot talk out of being bad; that markets work; to be cautious about turning over too much power to the government; that we should not only live in a free society but a decent society.
“First of all, I think the Republicans should not write off the Northeast. It was once the bastion of the party. A Republican party that can't hold New Hampshire faces long-term troubles.”
D’Souza’s latest book is “What’s So Great About Christianity?” Regnery Publishing, 2007
This article appears in the February 2010 issue of New Hampshire Magazine