How New Hampshire Democrats withstood another national Republican wave

New Hampshire Democratic Senate candidate, Gov. Maggie Hassan speaks to reporters, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, outside a polling place in Portsmouth, N.H. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan speaks to reporters Tuesday outside a polling place in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. –Elise Amendola / AP

In the 2014 midterm wave that saw Republicans retake the Senate and widen their majority in the House, there was perhaps but one beacon of light for Democrats.

New Hampshire.

Despite its reputation as the conservative black sheep of liberal New England, the Granite State appeared to buck the national trend and re-elected nearly its entire Democratic delegation.

Even in the midst of losses by peers in fellow light-blue states like Colorado, Iowa, and Wisconsin—as well as in deeply-blue places like Illinois, Massachusetts, and Maryland—Democrats in New Hampshire held on.

In 2016, it happened again.

Donald Trump’s surge carried him and other Republicans to victory in states—like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin—that were considered strongly leaning, if not safely, Democratic.

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And yet those outcomes were reversed in New Hampshire, where Democrats won across the board, with exception of the governor’s race.

Despite the sweeping loss nationally, Hillary Clinton appears poised to pick up the state’s four electoral votes (though the race had still not been called Thursday night).

Gov. Maggie Hassan narrowly unseated incumbent Kelly Ayotte, a Republican who distanced herself from her party’s nominee,  in a deadlocked Senate race. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter won back her first district seat in a re-re-rematch against GOP Rep. Frank Guinta. And second district Rep. Annie Kuster was re-elected to her third term.

The only other battleground state that elected a Democratic senator was Nevada, where a flood of Latino votes boosted Catherine Cortez Masto. The only other state where Democrats picked up a seat in the upper chamber was Illinois, which is hardly considered a swing state.

So how did New England’s notoriously independent state hold steady against the tide in the last two elections?

“New Hampshire has a strong Democratic Party structure,” Kathy Sullivan, a former chairwoman of the state party, told Boston.com.

According to Sullivan, that means a proactive state party organization, as well as “a strong focus” on town and county committees.

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“A lot of activity at the local level, volunteers,” she explained. “It makes a big difference when people feel invested in the party.”

Sullivan credited then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, a former campaign operative and now the state’s senior senator, for building that structure following her election in 1996.

“That has just continued to happen,” she said

That view is hardly a partisan one.

In an NHPR interview Tuesday, former Gov. John Sununu described the biggest challenge facing his son and Republican gubernatorial candidate Chris Sununu as “running against a huge Democratic turnout machine in a presidential year.”

(The younger Sununu would actually go on to defeat fellow executive councillor and Democratic candidate Colin Van Ostern. Sullivan theorized Sununu’s name recognition helped him in a race that “didn’t get same oxygen as other races.”)

Reinforcing that party structure, it helps to have a Democrat-saturated neighbor south of the border, Sullivan said, referring to the teams of Massachusetts elected officials (Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, and a number of represenatives) and volunteers that stumped and canvassed across the Granite State.

Sullivan recalled walking into a field office before the election and seeing Walsh, Rep. Stephen Lynch, and 300 volunteers from Massachusetts.

“Obviously, we have a lot of people from the neighborhood here,” she recalled Walsh remarking.

“It aided a tremendous get-out-the-vote effort,” Sullivan added.

Wayne Lesperance, a political science professor at New England College, in part credited the investment and attention given to the state by the Clinton campaign with “lift[ing] just about all boats,” in addition to the retail politics tradition of the state, due to it’s first-in-the-nation primary status.

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“We’ve been watching closely for nearly two years and have a lot more experience with the two campaigns than most Americans,” Lesperance said.

New Hampshire is a smaller state, so it’s easier to engage,” Sullivan concurred. “Unlike Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, people really get to know politics at the retail level.”

Lesperance also noted that New Hampshire’s population has relatively high education and low unemployment compared to the Great Lakes region and Upper Midwest. For that reason, Sullivan said voters in other states were more sensitive to Trump’s populist appeal.

“We lost our manufacturing base a long time ago,” Sullivan said, adding that many places in the state, such as Manchester, have shifted toward a more high-tech economy. 

Those shifts haven’t happened yet in other states,” she said. “New Hampshire had to adapt a long time ago.”

With current New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley receiving buzz as a possible successor to embattled former national party chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, both Sullivan and Lesperance agreed he was be a capable candidate, as a concussed Democratic Party looks for a way forward following Trump’s win.

Sullivan said Buckley, a current DNC vice chair, had proven he recognized the importance of local party structures. Nationwide, under Wasserman Schultz’s tenure, the party had already hollowed out, even before the 2016 election.

“It helps to have people who know how to win, especially in a state where winning is not a given,” Sullivan said. 

“He understands better than anyone how important it is to have good, strong state parties, something we didn’t see under Debbie Wasserman Schultz,” she added.

Lesperance called Buckley “a tireless advocate for his party” and admitted to one potential side-benefit of having a New Hampshirite as the nation’s top Democrat.

“I’d be remiss if I didn’t confess that in that role he’d be in an excellent position to protect New Hampshire’s First in the Nation status,” he said.

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