Picture This

Your 2018 ballot might be one worth remembering

Illustration by Peter Noonan

Two years ago this month, a court struck down a New Hampshire law that made it illegal for voters to take pictures of their ballot in the voting booth. The so called “selfie ballot” court case was mildly interesting as a First Amendment matter, but this month it might come in handy for historians of state politics.

Yes, you should vote in the September 11 state primary, but I would encourage you to take a picture of the ballot, or at least ponder over it for a few minutes, before you plop the sheet into the scanner.

While there isn’t one race that’s likely to change the state in some dramatic way, taken as a whole, the collection of races this year could mark a cultural sea change in the way we see New Hampshire politics — possibly forever. This primary could signal the official death of the cherished notion that retail politics is what sustains the local political ecosystem.

In his University of New Hampshire master’s thesis, Brian O’Conner statistically documented how the number of campaign stops by a presidential candidate in the 2016 presidential primary didn’t necessarily increase a candidate’s chance to win. The large-scale and less-frequent rallies of 2016 were a far cry from the Jimmy Carter and John McCain campaign style of going everywhere and being accessible.

But now, this is playing out in local races. In fact, the biggest races appearing on the state’s Democratic ballot could upend the conventional wisdom about which candidates can run and who will be the most viable.

First District Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter of Rochester won office in what soon might be called the “old New Hampshire way.” She had very little money, but she worked hard and inspired a hardcore group of volunteers to begin a letter-writing campaign to voters. In her 2006 primary, she defeated the candidate who was recruited by the establishment and officially backed by Washington funds and influence.

Now, with Shea-Porter retiring, nearly a dozen Democrats are running to replace her. One of the strongest contenders is Maura Sullivan. Sullivan moved to the state just months before entering the race, but a big Democratic political network allowed her to raise a record amount of money for state politics. If she wins, it won’t be a victory of local support, but rather one due to a national donor network.

The same is true in the governor’s race. The only reason there’s a Democratic primary at all is because a Washington-based organization spent months recruiting a candidate. They chose state senator Molly Kelly, whom they’re backing financially against former Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand, who had been in the race for nearly a year.

The Republican side of the ballot is also revealing. This might be the first year that the GOP just gave up when it came to Congressional races. Since the Great Depression, there has always been at least one current or former Republican member of Congress running in a primary. Not so this year. As a result, there isn’t a single national handicapper who sees either of our traditionally swing Congressional districts as competitive.

That is a huge cultural change. So this year’s ballot is worthy of your time in the voting booth, but also might make a good exhibit in the museum of political history.

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