Political Timber?

Why there's a shortage in "old growth" candidates

Illustration By Peter Noonan

National politics, particularly in the US Senate, is a seniority  game — and it’s one that New Hampshire isn’t playing. As Granite Staters prepare to vote in one of the most prominent Senate elections, it’s important to remember we’re choosing between a first-term incumbent and someone who would begin at the bottom of Senate seniority.

This means neither would be up for any real power. Neither are political giants, but perhaps those days are gone anyway. 

For much of the last century, New Hampshire was defined politically by the first-in-the-nation presidential primary and by its political dynasties and demigods: the Greggs, the Sununus, Mel Thomson, Tom McIntyre and Styles Bridges.

When Republican Judd Gregg announced he would not seek re-election in 2010, the state may have also said goodbye to the last of the giants in state politics.

There are two main reasons for this. The first is the fairly recent evolution of New Hampshire from Republican-dominated to swing state. No longer are Republicans easily re-elected without a fight, as Kelly Ayotte can likely confirm.

The second reason is more cynical. There are fewer incentives to stick around in elected office. There used to be a trade-off for politicians: foregoing money for power and prestige. But today, that balance is out of whack. The moment prominent politicians leave office, they can make 10 times the amount of money. On the other end of the scale, politicians are generally less powerful. Partisan political fights have become so institutionalized that very little gets done anymore in Concord and Washington. What is the point of being able to write legislation if nothing ever passes? And prestige? Congressional approval levels are currently at all-time lows.

Looking around New England, there are signs of change, but they are less prominent. Yes, the Chafees are done in Rhode Island. The Ingersolls and Bushes are out of Connecticut. But while Ted Kennedy is gone, Massachusetts has another Kennedy rising star serving in Congress and Senator Elizabeth Warren, who may not have seniority but is a significant power player within her party. Vermont has not only the nationally prominent Bernie Sanders, but the senator with the most seniority, Pat Leahy.

If there is one state that loves career politicians, it might be Iowa. Up until the 2014 election, the state was represented by the longest-serving governor in the nation’s history and two US Senators who held office for 30 years.

Back at home, New Hampshire’s current Senator Jeanne Shaheen holds the distinction as the only woman in US history to serve as both a governor and US Senator. However, she’s only been in the Senate for eight years, and may well exit for a cabinet position should Hillary Clinton be elected.

With all of the turnover in New Hampshire, it’s possible we’ll soon see younger politicians start to stay in office for a long time to come. If John Lynch, the state’s longest-serving governor, decides to run for Senate and continues to carry on with his moderate style, one could see him getting re-elected multiple times. The open race for governor features candidates who could have many years of public service ahead of them.

However, in the case of governor, it’s unlikely that whoever wins will stay for the long term. The nature of New Hampshire politics is such that voters typically act according to the national mood — meaning we tend to throw out incumbents, particularly if they are members of the party that’s on the outs with the nation as a whole.

While this might be exciting for the state’s voters and humbling to politicians, it’s a significant change from the way things used to be.

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