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Hard turn right worries GOP moderates in N.H.

Jack Kimball to lead party. Jack Kimball to lead party.
By Sarah Schweitzer
Globe Staff / February 1, 2011

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New Hampshire Democrats conceded a dramatic loss of power to a Republican insurgency last November. Now another group is coming to terms with its sidelining.

Moderate Republicans, the practical-minded mainstay of the state’s venerable GOP, have watched in dismay as conservative legislators have proposed restricting state education funding to English, math, science, social studies, and physical education and urged that officials no longer “bear faith and true allegiance’’ to the United States and New Hampshire, but rather, only to New Hampshire.

With the recent ascension of Tea Party activist Jack Kimball to head the state Republican Party, many moderates now say they are resigned to having little sway in shaping the state’s agenda.

“We know we don’t have much of a chance of convincing anybody of anything,’’ said Representative Priscilla Lockwood, a moderate Republican, who said she fears that abortion will be restrict ed and gay marriage banned.

Kimball’s election also carries national implications because he will act as host to candidates in the nation’s first Republican primary in 2012. Prior to his win, Kimball had pledged to vet presidential candidates to ensure their conservative credentials, a departure from the party leader’s traditional neutrality. Last week, he softened that stance, saying all candidates are welcome.

The turn to the right comes after Democrats had assumed dominance in a state that had been previously reliably Republican, with power tending to swing between moderate and conservative wings of the party. Two years ago, Democrats held the governorship, majorities in both legislative houses, and three of the state’s four congressional seats.

The 2010 election produced Republican supermajorities in the Legislature, but with many new members leaning further right than their predecessors; in the House an estimated 100 of the 400 members are Tea Party-affiliated. The election also yielded a Republican US Senator, Kelly Ayotte, backed by Sarah Palin, and two Republican US representatives.

The impact of the conservative sweep has been evident in the Legislature where conservatives’ first order of business, with the backing of William O’Brien, the new speaker of the House, was to change rules on weapons in the Statehouse, making them explicitly welcome rather than tacitly permitted. A string of proposals followed, including those on restricting school funding and the oath of office.

Democrats have labeled the conservative initiatives radical. A number of moderate Republicans say they are withholding judgment until a fuller picture emerges of the conservative agenda, though one who is no longer in office said he has seen enough to be worried.

“I am sure I would have had a heart attack if I were up there having to fight each one of these issues,’’ said Anthony DiFruscia, a moderate Republican who served 12 years in the legislature until a primary defeat last year when he said he was targeted by a grass-roots group for his views, particularly support of gay marriage.

Kimball’s ascension to party leader at a Republican meeting Jan. 22 surprised moderates, who had assumed the victor would be the handpicked successor of outgoing chairman John H. Sununu, the former governor credited with guiding the recent Republican sweep.

As the results were announced and chants of “Jack! Jack! Jack!’’ erupted, Representative Alida Millham, a moderate Republican who had not voted for Kimball, thought to herself, “Oh boy, what’s coming?’’

Conservatives say their agenda taps into the true ethos of New Hampshire political thought, from which moderate Republicans have strayed in recent years. With the election of Kimball, they say they have one of their own to forcefully ensure a conservative agenda.

“Jack’s election is frosting on the cake,’’ said Jane Aitken, a Tea Party Coalition activist. “It gives people hope that the Republican platform will be reinforced and that people will start acting like Republicans.’’

Kimball, 63, came to attention in March 2009 with eye-catching signs in front of his medical facility cleaning business in Portsmouth that read, “Let’s all stop paying our mortgages’’ and “Congress — We don’t want socialism.’’ In an interview with the Portsmouth Herald at the time, he said he had bought “as much ammo as I could get my hands on’’ and was adding generators at his home and planning for a worst-case scenario because “our enemies see us as weak and they are going to test us.’’

Kimball sought the Republican gubernatorial nomination, but lost in the four-way primary in September 2010. In December, he announced his bid for Republican Party chair and quickly took some members aback with his vow to use a litmus test of Republican primary candidates’ conservative positions.

Kimball did not respond to requests for an interview.

Some Republicans have sought to downplay the significance of Kimball’s election, noting that the chair’s duties are largely administrative and fund-raising, not policy-making. Some note, too, that voting delegates, particularly Tea Party activists, may have resented Sununu’s efforts to steer the vote.

“They are card-carrying members of the don’t-tell-me-what-to-do coalition,’’ said Fergus Cullen, a former state GOP chair.

Other Republicans said Kimball’s election could signal disunity in the party.

“It was a little disturbing to me with Sununu as the chair standing up and saying (the other candidate) should be the chair, and the real right-wing saying, ‘No we’re not going to pay attention to that and we’re going to do what we want.’ That’s probably not a good thing for the party,’’ said Representative David Kidder, a moderate Republican.

“Is Kimball the kind of guy who can go and represent us well in a national forum?’’ he said.

Jennifer Horn, chairwoman of Kimball’s transition committee, said, “Jack has made it very clear during his campaign and since then that his primary goal is to lead a united Republican Party forward.’’

She said he has been in touch with Republicans from all wings of the party and is listening to all members.

Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, said Kimball’s election, like the Republican sweep of offices by conservatives in November, relied to a large extent on muscle flexed by grass-roots organizations like the Tea Party Coalition, he said. The real test of their power will come in 2012, when a broader spectrum of voters turns out for the presidential race.

“This state is not as conservative as this Legislature would indicate and I think we’ll see in 2012, there will be a correction — something of a correction,’’ he said.

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at schweitzer@globe.com.