The Biggest Differences Between NH Republicans and Democrats

Different worlds: A tale of two parties

Illustration by Peter Noonan

The philosophical differences between the two political parties in the state are pretty clear. Republicans generally believe in lower taxes, gun rights and rugged individualism. Democrats tend to favor using more government programs to invest in communities, believe in abortion rights and think that it takes a village to raise a child.

With the state pretty evenly divided on party lines, what many fail to realize is just how different the state’s two political parties are structurally. Both parties do have chairs and vice chairs, paid staffers and county committees, but that is basically where the similarities end. In their power structure, money sources and mindset, the two parties work in different worlds. For reasons that have more to do with history than ideology, Republicans are more of a loosely affiliated confederation while Democrats are a tightly controlled centralized outfit.

A big factor in this is that, for most of its history, New Hampshire has been a one-party state. Republicans dominated here, like they did most of New England, from the turn of the 20th century to nearly the turn of the 21st. In 1992, Bill Clinton was the first Democrat to win the state in the general election since 1964. In 1996, Jeanne Shaheen was the first Democrat to win the governor’s office since 1980.

"In their power structure, money sources and mindset, the two parties work in different worlds."

This one-party rule meant the real political action happened in Republican primaries. In the 1910s, politicos lined up between the progressive wing of Robert P. Bass and the likes of John Bartlett — the very epitome of an establishment Republican (he was even a descendant of legendary Gov. Josiah Bartlett). In the 1970s, the battle lines were between the conservative firebrand Mel Thomson and the moderate Walter Peterson. A decade later, it was the Sununus wrestling with the Greggs for who really held power.

These factions created primaries and sub-parties organized around particular candidates or political consultants. The legacy of this dynamic exists today where there continues to be strong infighting between the party base and establishment (even though the only serious GOP game in town right now is US Sen. Kelly Ayotte).

History has granted Democrats a mindset that the only way they can win is if the party picks moderate candidates and then everyone pulls together. This explains why, even though a significant chunk of the very-active Democratic base wants a conversation about establishing a state income tax, the party has only nominated two candidates for governor in the last 20 years who have advocated one. It is also a reason why Democrats rarely find themselves in primary battles while it is almost always assumed there will be a Republican one.

Since 2000 there have been two state Democratic chairs and both still work closely together. During the same period, Republicans have had 10 different chairs and many of them were run out of the job or simply left when they’d had enough of the fighting.

A lot of this is just inside baseball for the average person following state politics. But these dynamics are important. Long before we get to pick who will lower our taxes or organize our village, they determine which candidates appear on the ballot in the first place.

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