Polls and, surprisingly, legislative redistricting are giving Democrats hope they can reverse the historic Republican landslide of 2010 and pick up seats in the New Hampshire House.
Even Republicans concede that gains by Democrats are inevitable in a presidential election year which brings out large numbers of voters.
Republicans hold a 288-102 majority with 10 vacancies. Republicans control all the legislative seats in Southern New Hampshire.
But the last two elections produced major political swings in the House.
House records show Democrats held a 231-158 majority going into the 2010 election, while Republicans had a 242-150 majority entering the 2008 campaign. There were vacancies in the 400-seat House during those campaigns.
Both parties had issues working in their favor nationally in the years they prevailed. In 2008, Democrats were buoyed by war fatigue and distrust of Wall Street amid the financial collapse. Two years ago, doubts about health care reforms and government spending boosted Republicans.
Democrat Carolyn Webber of Windham said polls giving President Barack Obama a 5- to 15-point edge over Mitt Romney and putting gubernatorial nominee Maggie Hassan in a tight race with Ovide Lamontagne are encouraging for those down the ballot.
“I feel I have a chance to win,” she said.
Four years ago, Webber was the first Democrat from Windham elected to the House in decades, she said.
She’s pushing for a return, knocking on doors and putting up signs.
“I’m not taking anything for granted,” she said.
In Salem, political newcomer Susan Desmet is heartened by the polls, too.
“I think that could be a good sign that Democrats could take it,” Desmet said.
She sees redistricting as a help to Democrats trying to win House seats in Salem. Salem had shared a district with Windham for a decade and Republicans dominated. Now, both towns are in standalone districts.
“It’s just our community and the people who know us who are voting,” Desmet said.
That redistricting would work for Democrats is a surprise since Republicans called the shots. But while the overall statewide landscape may enhance GOP prospects, there is a different view in Salem.
Salem Democratic Committee Chairman Larry Disenhof agrees redistricting is helping the party’s chances.
“We felt from the beginning that gave Salem a better chance of electing a more balanced slate,” Disenhof said.
The number of registered voters in Salem is almost evenly split among the two parties and independent voters, while Republicans outnumber Democrats in Windham, he said.
Bipartisanship is a theme on the campaign trail as candidates compete for votes.
Desmet and Webber acknowledge they are appealing to Republican friends for support as they campaign.
Democrat Hal Lynde of Pelham has no choice. His wife, Charlene Takesian, is a Republican running in the same Hudson-Pelham district. He said he will vote for her.
Lynde, a Pelham selectman, is optimistic about the prospects for Democrats.
“I am encouraged and expect Democrats to win seats in our district as well as statewide,” he said. “However, not without a clear message and hard work.”
Two political bloggers, Democrat William Tucker and Republican Steve Vaillancourt, are forecasting Democratic gains in the House. Tucker sees it all square, 200-200, with his computer modeling. Vaillancourt gives the GOP a 201-198 edge in his analysis.
Tucker’s forecast doesn’t predict district races. Vaillancourt does and sees an 11-seat gain for Democrats in Rockingham County, including two wins in Derry and one in Salem.
University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala said the huge enthusiasm advantage Republicans enjoyed two years ago is gone and a 50-50 House split is more likely.
“There are 3-1 Republican majorities in the House and Senate. There is no way New Hampshire nowadays is a 3-1 Republican state,” Scala said.
Republicans know reversals are likely.
“It’s possible the Democrats can pick off House seats around the state,” Rep. Shaun Doherty, R-Pelham, said. “We had 300 of 400 seats, so it’s natural to lose a few.”
Doherty doesn’t overreact to the recent New Hampshire poll numbers, especially when he sees national polls favoring Romney with a month to go and debates just starting.
Much can change, he points out, as it did for Ronald Reagan on the strength of his debates with Jimmy Carter.
“Reagan did it by asking, ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’ Romney can do the same thing,” Doherty said.
Romney may not have had such a Reagan moment last week but analysts agreed he turned in a strong performance against Obama that could give him a bump in the polls.
“I think for Republicans right now, if you are concerned about the poll numbers, you should be talking to your friends and neighbors and getting the actual Republican message out and not the skewed Democratic message,” Doherty said.
“I would encourage them to go out, find their Republican office, go and volunteer,” Doherty said.
Doherty is not seeking re-election because he wants to focus on his work. He said he was elected in 2008 by concentrating on his campaign every day.
“Now? I’d be working as hard as I possibly can.”
Rep. Mary Griffin, a Republican always at or near the top of the field in Windham, is aware of the challenges this campaign.
“I know there is a strong push to put the Democrats in,” she said.
That is why Griffin is regularly seen at community events. She recently spoke at a public forum in Windham about the fate of the town skatepark.
“I do my job. That’s what people elect me for. If you’re really interested in being elected, you must be doing your job,” Griffin said.
As Webber and Desmet stress their ability to work with others, so, too, does Griffin.
“I keep telling you I can work with the Democrats,” she said.
Scala thinks it’s understandable for Republicans down the ticket to be concerned, given the poll numbers.
“Boy, if you’re a Republican, obviously you’re looking up and you’re nervous. When you are a state legislative candidate in New Hampshire, so many things are out of your control,” Scala said.
Take the presidential debate.
“All you can do is root for the guy on your team,” Scala said.
What Republicans and Democrats alike want at the top of the ticket is their candidate in front or at least in a closely contested race, he said.
If the presidential race tightens in New Hampshire, and it could, that helps Republicans down the ticket, Scala said.
What Republicans don’t want is for Romney to fall so far behind that his campaign abandons the state to Obama and the Democrats. The GOP base could then become demoralized and not show up to vote, he said.
So short of a Romney victory, a close race in New Hampshire is next the best thing for Republicans.
“Then, things like incumbency, name recognition and redrawing districts – all those things help,” Scala said.