Power Surge

After 15 years of bruises, a recharged GOP arises

illustration by peter noonan

In late January, New Hampshire Republicans elected a new state party chair. The new Republican governor, Chris Sununu, picked the person he wanted to run his state party back in the fall, so the election wasn’t big news. But, in the long view, it’s huge news.

For 15 years, the state Republican Party has essentially been a broke, losing party beset with internal fighting, a trend that began with another Sununu in 2002.

In that midterm election, John E. Sununu, Chris’ older brother, defeated then-sitting governor Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, for a seat in the United States Senate. Weeks later it was revealed that state Republican Party aides had illegally jammed phone lines for a group aiding Democrats. This was a federal crime. The NHGOP’s executive director at the time went to prison. In addition, the state Republican Party had to pay a lot of money annually to the state Democratic Party in fines.

As a result of this tarnishing, many Republican politicians and activists didn’t want to touch the state party, and many traditional Republican donors decided to stay away. And who could blame them? Any money they gave would go to a chaotic organization and possibly end up with the state Democrats.

Democrats elected John Lynch as governor in 2004, and he was to be re-elected twice at levels that set state records and made him the most popular New Hampshire governor in modern political history.

Meanwhile, it was hard for Republicans to find a leader to get their organization back on track. The position is unpaid and comes with endless criticism and no real money to do anything beyond the bare bones.

In the 15-year period since, state Republicans have had 10 different state chairs, while Democrats only had two.

It wasn’t all GOP gloom: The two-year period after the 2008 elections saw the rise of the Tea Party movement, which galvanized the conservative grassroots and brought the steady hand of the Sununu patriarch, former Governor John H. Sununu, to take over as party chair and rebuild the party’s establishment and donor base.

The celebration was short-lived. After Republican success in the 2010 elections, John H. Sununu didn’t run again. Next, his handpicked successor lost to the biggest Tea Party leader in the state, Jack Kimball. Party donors went back into hiding and soon the establishment waged a successful coup on Kimball, just seven months into his term.

All of the establishment was in on the coup — Republican members of the House, new US Senator Kelly Ayotte and new state House Speaker Bill O’Brien — so Republicans were in power but wielded this power to eat their own.

Now Republicans are back in power in Concord following the 2016 elections, but the mood feels different than six years ago. Those criticizing the party back then have either given up or found new hobbies. The few still grumbling — that their party is led by a pro-choice governor, for example — don’t see a lot of people grumbling with them.

So Republicans can focus on defeating Democrats again. Democrats who might be electing their own state chair this spring now find their party is the one reeling after tough losses and upset with their own establishment.

New Hampshire Republicans, a party that ran the state for a century, is back — but who knows for how long? 

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