A Look at New Hampshire

Posted September 22, 2003 at 5:46pm

Granite Staters guard their first-in-the-nation presidential primary jealously, secure in the knowledge that it demonstrates just how civic-

minded they really are.

Of course, while the political world focuses on the Jan. 27, 2004, New Hampshire presidential primary, news reports there warn that City Council and Board of Education seats in Dover (population 27,000) may go unfilled for lack of candidates in the November 2003 elections. So much for civic-mindedness.

[IMGCAP(1)] But that may be the storyline for the 2004 election cycle in New Hampshire — which is probably good news for Republicans. With the state’s myriad Democratic activists tied up with the presidential race, little attention is being paid to — and little preparation is being made for — the rest of the 2004 ballot, when Gov. Craig Benson (R), Sen. Judd Gregg (R) and the state’s two GOP Congressmen are up for re-election.

As of now, Democrats are having a hard time finding challengers for any of these races — which isn’t altogether surprising after the drubbing they took at the polls in 2002.

“They don’t have much to put up besides their negative tactics,” sneered Julie Teer, a spokeswoman for the New Hampshire Republican Party.

Democrats, though, say they’re not worried about the paucity of candidates — at least not publicly. Pamela Walsh, a spokeswoman for the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said all the attention the presidential primary gets — coupled with the rule allowing cross-over voting

in the presidential primary — is good news for Democrats.

“We have an exciting opportunity with the presidential primary to bring independents into the party, to identify potential Democratic voters,” she said. “Take a Democratic ballot once, and it’s easier to vote Democratic next time.”

In the governor’s race, for one, it pays to wait, Walsh said. The nonpresidential primary in New Hampshire isn’t until Sept. 14, 2004, and the filing deadline is June 11.

“Why give the governor, who has $600 million, an opportunity to attack?” Walsh said, referring to Benson’s tremendous wealth.

A political neophyte who founded a company that makes electrical cords for personal computers, Benson spent more than $10 million to win a competitive Republican primary and a not-so-competitive general election last year.

He shouldn’t need to spend that much in 2004, even though his administration has been rocked recently by an ethics scandal involving the recently departed secretary of Health and Human Services. New Hampshire is one of only two states where governors serve two-year terms, and no Granite State chief executive who has sought a second term has ever been denied one by the voters.

The last governor to lose a re-election bid was Meldrim Thompson (R), who was seeking a fourth term in 1978. He was undone by Republican infighting that dated back to the 1976 presidential election.

So far, the only Democrat who has publicly expressed any interest in running is state Sen. Lou D’Alessandro, a 65-year-old, 30-year veteran of state politics from Manchester. But it is not clear if he will run.

Democrats also hold out hope that two former Congressmen, Norm D’Amours and Dick Swett, will consider the race, but there is little evidence of that so far.

At least the Democrats have a candidate against Gregg: state Sen. Burt Cohen. Cohen is a fiery liberal who is popular with grassroots party activists. But he isn’t given much of a chance against the two-term Senator right now, and the Democratic field could grow (again, Swett and D’Amours are occasionally mentioned).

There are persistent rumors that Gregg would like to do something else, like serve in President Bush’s Cabinet or get a judicial appointment. A Gregg departure could lure a “name” Democrat into the Senate race, like former governor and 2002 Senate nominee Jeanne Shaheen. But Gregg’s $1 million war chest should put that rumor to rest, and Shaheen, who has not ruled out attempting a political comeback in the future, is almost certain to wait a cycle or two.

On paper, Democrats should have a decent shot against freshman Rep. Jeb Bradley (R) in the Republican-leaning 1st district, which covers the New Hampshire coast and the southern part of the state. Democrats had high hopes for former state Rep. Martha Fuller Clark, their nominee there in 2000 and 2002. But despite spending $3.5 million, she wound up losing to Bradley by 19 points.

Democrats were further rocked when one of their leading contenders for the 1st district seat, state Rep. Corey Corbin, announced earlier this month that he would forgo a run for Congress and would seek a state Senate seat instead. According to the PoliticsNH.com Web site, other possible candidates include former state Rep. John Kacavas, a member of the Manchester school board; union leader Mark MacKenzie; party activist Steve Marchand; and state Rep. Peter Sullivan.

If Bradley faces any political peril at all, it may come from the right. Two of the New Hampshire GOP’s top rising stars ran against Bradley in the Republican primary last year, and both are viewed as more conservative.

Teer, the state GOP spokeswoman, said she does not expect either John Stephen, the state’s new HHS secretary, or 33-year-old self-made millionaire Sean Mahoney to primary Bradley. But both are young and ambitious, and in Washington, D.C., the Republican Main Street Partnership has signaled its intention to rush to Bradley’s aid if either Mahoney or Stephen jumps into the primary.

Five-term Rep. Charlie Bass (R) seems

secure in his 2nd district seat, and Democrats do not appear to have any candidates-in-waiting there. Republicans do, in state Senate President Tom Eaton, who has shown an ability to win in a liberal district. But his chance will come whenever Bass moves on.

Manchester Mayor Bob Baines, a Democrat who is a lock to win his third term this fall, is a Democratic star who could be coaxed into a race for governor or Congress sometime soon — but not, most political observers agree, in 2004.