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New Hampshire Republicans are stuck between a rock and a hard place this cycle.
The Granite State’s political infrastructure is “a mess,” complain out-of-state GOP consultants, and the state has become an increasingly difficult place to run campaigns.
To be sure, many of the local GOP’s problems are similar to the national party’s issues: problematic candidate recruitment in primaries, powerless minorities in the legislature and congressional delegation, and poor fundraising in the super PAC era. But what makes New Hampshire unique is the high turnover rate — both House seats flipped party hands in three of the past four cycles — producing political whiplash in the first-in-the-nation primary state.
Look no further than the state GOP’s official leadership for turnover: The New Hampshire Republican Party’s newly elected chairwoman, Jennifer Horn, is the eighth person in nine years to hold that post.
So which New Hampshire is it: the 2008 Democratic landslide, the 2010 GOP wave or the 2012 turn back to Democrats? Heading into the 2014 cycle, local GOP activists are questioning the very political composition of their state — and what they can do to take advantage of it.
“Do New Hampshire activists think 2010 represents the true political nature of the state or do they view that as the aberration?” former New Hampshire GOP Chairman Fergus Cullen asked in a phone interview. “How you answer that question says a lot about your view of politics.”
Cullen, a tea party critic, said he views the 2010 wave that filled the delegation with two Republican House members and a GOP senator as backlash against President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul legislation and the stimulus. Politically, he argued, those circumstances cannot be replicated.
But another former state party chairman, Jack Kimball, looks at 2010 as a playbook for success in future cycles.
“You have a massive turnout nationally of people, many of which have not been real heavily involved in their party and they became impassioned,” Kimball said. “Those are the foot soldiers who help win elections.”
Meanwhile, top recruits are waiting for a better sense of the national political landscape before jumping into a 2014 race for House or Senate. New Hampshire Republicans struggle as the local party out of power — with fundraising, and most of all, with the chasm between the tea party and the more traditional GOP establishment in the state.
Longtime Granite State Republicans blame the tea party for hurting the GOP’s brand with independents. And the tea party activists blame the party elders for exclusion.
This factionalism led to upheaval at the party’s helm. Party chairmen and executive directors come and go (or are sometimes outright ousted), which means various officials and operatives are pitted against each other about once a year.
The great hope is that Horn can bridge these divides. But she must reign over a party leadership that is clearly transitional.
“I have always had strong relationships with members of all arms of the party,” Horn wrote in an email. “There is room in the Republican Party for a broad spectrum of ideas. I am convinced that we are all committed to a greater cause and as long as we respect each other we can build winning efforts.”
For years, former Gov. John H. Sununu has served as the GOP’s center of power in the state. But now, local Republicans sense he is easing back from meddling in local politics.
Some Republicans look to the state’s top Republican, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, to fill the leadership vacuum. But sources say that while she is willing to insert herself into local party squabbles — and usually gets her way — she is “not an operator” of party mechanics.
Aside from these internal clashes, what hurts the party most is what the state fights so hard to keep: its first-in-the-nation primary placement on the presidential nominating calendar.
In 2016, national Republicans will host their third nomination battle for the White House in as many presidential cycles. As a result, the local GOP’s most talented political staff spends at least two years of every cycle working against one another on presidential campaigns.
“This makes it a little harder to come back together for common purposes afterward for state candidate work that is not as glamorous as working for a presidential candidate can be,” Cullen said.
But for other Granite State Republicans, the most frightening problems are the unforeseen. Despite New Hampshire’s swing status, GOP operatives remained bullish through last October that Mitt Romney would carry the state. But President Barack Obama won it by 6 points.
“I don’t think the [state party’s dysfunction] contributed to it,” one GOP operative said. “Obama ran an incredible campaign in New Hampshire. He was doing things we weren’t even thinking about.”