Eastward, Ho!

The state’s political class seems to like sea breezes

illustration by peter noonan

It doesn’t take long to walk from the last governor’s house to where the current one lives. From former Governor Maggie Hassan’s house in Newfields, turn left onto Scanlon Way, take two more lefts and eventually hang a right. You’ll end up at current Governor Chris Sununu’s house. It is about 1.6 miles. It’s even closer as the crow flies.

The fact that they are so close might seem almost quaint in a way. It speaks to how New Hampshire is basically a small town. But it also speaks to a larger truth about modern political life in the Granite State: Power has shifted away from the state’s Merrimack River spine to the Seacoast.

Hassan is now a US senator. As mentioned above, the state’s governor is just a few miles away. The state’s other US senator lives in Madbury. The congresswoman representing Manchester, Merrimack and Laconia is Carol Shea-Porter, who lives ... in Rochester. Rye is home for three former US senators, Judd Gregg, John E. Sununu and Scott Brown.

And should anyone think this is a fluke, consider that in next year’s race for governor there are only two Democrats even thinking about running against Sununu: Steve Marchand and Mark Connolly, of Portsmouth and New Castle, respectively. At this point, Shea-Porter’s only challenger for next year is a man from Dover.

It hasn’t always been this way. For years, much of the state’s power elite came from the state’s capital and from Manchester and Nashua. Former US Senator Kelly Ayotte was a wink to this Nashua golden age, with power players spanning from Hugh Gregg to Warren Rudman to longtime mayor and executive councilor Bernie Streeter.

Manchester, as the state’s largest city and hub, also had its share of power. And, due to its geography in the center of the state and its airport, it is still the home of most major political gatherings when it comes time for the New Hampshire presidential primary. It is also the state’s media capital, meaning that local events and political players are disproportionately covered statewide.

This dynamic of Seacoast power is more prominent in the Democratic Party than it is in the Republican Party, which remains more dominated by the southern tier. Besides Ayotte, the region boasts the current House speaker and Senate president, hailing respectively from Hudson and Salem. But, then again, the preceding House speaker was from Portsmouth.

In a way, it is odd that the Seacoast has gathered so much clout. The state’s population has shifted south along the Massachusetts border, not east. Hudson, in fact, has a larger population than Portsmouth.

But the eastward power shift is a nod back to the way that New Hampshire began, with its first capitals in Exeter and Portsmouth. Over the last century, there have been major statewide figures from north of Concord largely because they kept getting reelected and amassed seniority.

So far, there is little evidence that any of this really matters in terms of either political conversation or policy. Sure, there might be more focus on ocean levels rising than on a major expansion of 101 West — but, on the whole, there hasn’t been much impact.

Regardless, though, it seems there’s just something about the Seacoast these days. My advice for any budding politician in the state: Go east, young (wo)man.

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