Gate City Gravity

Why politics in Nashua is a bit like an event horizon
Illustration by peter noonan

When New Hampshire gets close to Election Day, political parties and candidates get closer to Nashua. The state’s second largest city is also among its most politically volatile. As goes Nashua, generally so goes the state.

The problem is in figuring out how Nashua goes. Politically, Nashua is a mysterious black hole. No one, not even those in local politics for years, can get their head around it. Things that happen there are either misunderstood and often cannot be seen anyway. Some of it is just weird: The current mayor had a run-in with police over whether her husband was involved in selling drugs. The mayor prior to her got into a city vehicle and crashed into another car while driving the wrong way in Manchester. Neither had any real threats from opponents afterward.

But there are also larger dynamics at play, particularly the mood swings the city’s residents have about elections generally. There are major vacillations in voter turnout here, as much as there is about which party to vote for.

This is what will make Nashua’s open race for mayor the most fascinating political contest in the state in 2015. About six people are expected to compete for the job. They have diverse backgrounds, both in their resumés and their demographics. Given that no one really understands the dynamics of the city and turnout could be low, any argument that basically any candidate could win is about as good as any other argument.

Process-wise, no one runs for Nashua mayor as a Republican or a Democrat. The first step is to winnow the field down to two in a September primary, with a run-off election in November.

In a state that views elected offices as essentially volunteer jobs, being Nashua mayor is a plum job. It pays well, offers more staff positions to fill with minions than any other, and as stated above, that means that the mayor can be a kingmaker for other candidates, if they so choose.

Part of the problem of crafting a winning playbook in Nashua is trying to define the city politically. Since US Senator Kelly Ayotte and state Republican Party Chair Jennifer Horn live there, Nashua serves as the de facto home of establishment Republican. At the same time, Nashua is also home to some of the bigger Tea Party anti-establishment Republicans. Nashua is also home of some of the state’s more progressive Democrats (even though statewide, their elected Democratic officials are viewed as the moderate ones).

But what really makes Nashua stand out is its large number of independent voters. Looking at party registration, there are slightly more Democrats than Republicans, but that doesn’t mean much when nearly half of voters aren’t registered with either party. The math tells the story of why this city’s independent voters are so important. The last six presidential elections in New Hampshire were decided by, on average, 30,000 votes. There are 23,000 independent voters in Nashua alone.

This is why candidates for US House and all the way to president will be watching the race for Nashua mayor closely for telltale signs of how to perform well in the city.

After all, as a political black hole, the path to winning an election there isn’t written in the stars. 

Categories: Politics