EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 20, 2008

GOP looks to take back N.H. Statehouse Economy, social issues could be key to 2008 election

By Terry Date , Staff writer

Will the blue wave that flooded New Hampshire's legislative landscape with Democrats in 2006 recede in 2008, or remain as a natural feature in the Granite State?

Red-minded Republicans see the flood ebbing, while true blue Democrats see it continuing.

Republicans say they plan to regain control of the Legislature by putting up stronger candidates for office and pointing to Democratic fiscal failures.

Sprinkle in social issues like civil unions and parental notification, and so-called "nanny" issues like smoking bans and mandatory seat belts, and you have a recipe for a GOP victory in November, say state Republican Party Chairman Fergus Cullen and Vice Chairman Wayne MacDonald.

"Absolutely," says MacDonald, when asked if he thinks the GOP can turn the tide.

But Democrats say their counterparts' vision is fantasy. They vow to hold fast to the historic gains they made in 2006, when they took control of the state House and Senate - the first time since 1874 that they held a majority in these chambers and the governor's office.

State Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley points to this month's New Hampshire primary as proof 2006 wasn't an aberration. He said 44 percent of the state's registered voters were undeclared, yet 50,000 more of them cast ballots in the Democratic primary than the Republican primary.

Election could center on economy

Buckley agrees the economy will be key to the coming election, but not at the expense of the Democratic majority.

He says New Hampshire voters will lay the state's economic woes where they belong, at the feet of President Bush. The president's mismanaged economy and out-of-control war spending is fanning a national economic slowdown that has trickled down to the states, he says.

But MacDonald says the blame for the state's financial problems falls squarely on Gov. John Lynch and his supporters in the state House and Senate.

However, Republican and Democratic takes on state spending and the budget vary widely.

MacDonald said the 17.5 percent increase in the current biennial budget, passed in June, is 400 percent more than the 4 percent increase during the governor's first term, when Republicans made up the majority in the House.

"Ultimately, if New Hampshire's fiscal house is in disarray, then this is something the governor and his party will have to answer for, because they are in the majority," he said.

Cullen said Lynch's announcement last week that he will have to cut spending by $50 million should come as no surprise, since Republicans were warning in June that his revenue estimates were inflated.

But Buckley and Sen. Margaret "Maggie" Hassan, D-Exeter, said voters won't be fooled by Republican claims that Democrats are spending more money.

Democrats put spending appropriations in the budget as opposed to the Republican practice in years past of deliberately underestimating budget appropriations only to later seek additional funds from the joint House and Senate Finance Committee.

For this reason, Buckley says, the argument about Democrats spending more than their Republican predecessors is misleading.

'Too far, too fast'

The Republicans are also hoping to make a case that the Democrats have gone "too far, too fast," as Cullen often says - approving sweeping changes last year, from civil unions, to the restaurant smoking ban, to repealing the parental notification law, which required that parents be notified when their child is going to get an abortion.

"The New Hampshire Democratic Party has been taken over by the angry left wing and is personified by Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter, and Statehouse Democrats and what they passed last year," Cullen says.

He calls the smoking ban a perfect example of "nanny" legislation, where the government interferes with people's personal lives.

But Hassan says the Democrats have been told by their constituents that they are happy the party has delivered on its promises to help working people by boosting the minimum wage, increasing access to health care and banning smoking in restaurants.

As for Cullen's claim of a Democratic march to the far left, Buckley says Cullen "has shouted this at the top of his lungs" from one part of the state to the other, but polls have shown that voters aren't buying it.

"Not one person has been swayed," Buckley said.

Another major issue that the Republicans will use against the Democrats is education funding.

Cullen says he hopes the governor solves the problem, but promises to hammer Lynch if he fails to show leadership and win a compromise.

Tough road ahead for GOP

Political science Professor Dante Scala of the University of New Hampshire says he doesn't see the social issues resonating with voters, other than those who already care about them.

He thinks pocketbook issues will sway voters, but even on the economy, the Republicans have their work cut out for them if they are to regain the majority. The only caveat would be if there is a recession and it hits the state hard and the Democrats in the Legislature get aggressive on spending.

If Republicans can make a case that Democrats haven't been good stewards of the economy and public spending, that could help the GOP, Scala said. The governor, however, is taking action to cut spending and has long been on the record as opposing broad-based taxes.

Scala said so-called "nanny" legislation such as a mandatory seat-belt law has the potential to move some voters to Republican candidates, but that legislation failed in the last session, so it cannot be used against the Democrats.

Smoking doesn't carry strong clout since so many people see it as a public-health issue, he said.

Scala said a test for Cullen will be to recruit quality candidates at the top of the ticket, including governor. Lynch's popularity has been cited as one reason why the Democrats were able to take control of the Statehouse in 2006.

Already, several high-profile Republicans, including Sen. Joseph Kenney, R-Wakefield, and former state Sen. Bruce Keough, are looking into a run for governor, MacDonald said.

Leading the charge

Cullen remains adamant that the Republicans will come charging back in November.

He says the party will field a strong slate of state GOP candidates in 2008 and a ticket boosted by a strong Republican presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. John E. Sununu running for re-election.

The Democrats hold a slim four-person advantage in the state Senate, he says, but the large 79-person majority in the House is deceiving, since he expects traditional Republican strongholds to return to GOP control. He pointed to House District 13, made up of Exeter, North Hampton and Stratham, as one example.

"The House is most susceptible to tides, but I'm expecting things to come back to equilibrium," Cullen says.

But Buckley expects the majority of New Hampshire voters to cast ballots for Democrats, from the presidency at the top right on down the ticket.

He thinks the tide has turned for good.

Makeup of the N.H. Legislature

House of Representatives%237 Democrats%158 Republicans

Senate%14 Democrats%10 Republicans