GOP Divide in New Hampshire
Party’s Comeback Efforts Hurt by Ideological and Generational Splits
2006 was not a great year for the New Hampshire Republican Party.
In addition to losing both Congressional seats in upsets, Granite State Republicans lost control of both houses in the state Capitol.
Yet on the verge of what they hope will be a rebound cycle for them, the New Hampshire GOP remains anything but unified. In both Congressional districts, Republicans are looking at complicated and crowded primaries heading into 2008, which seem to illustrate the generational and ideological divides within the state GOP.
In the 1st district, former state Health Commissioner John Stephen is running against former Rep. Jeb Bradley, who is looking to get back his old seat in Congress. The winner will take on Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D), who ousted Bradley by 2 points.
But the GOP divisions take greater shape in the 2nd Congressional district, where four candidates are looking to take on freshman Rep. Paul Hodes (D): Grant Bosse, a former aide to Sen. John Sununu (R), state Sen. Bob Clegg, radio host Jennifer Horn and attorney Jim Steiner.
In the 2nd district race, Horn was strongly encouraged to run by state and
national Republicans in part because voters might view her as a political outsider.
“It’s no secret that we encouraged her to take a look at the race,” New Hampshire GOP Chairman Fergus Cullen said. “We did that at a time when there were no other announced candidates. The party is naturally part of the process, and we’re excited that we have more than one quality candidate in the race.”
But Clegg, a longtime member of the Legislature, had been talking about running for months, though he did not make any official moves until after his preferred presidential candidate, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), got through the New Hampshire primary in January. Clegg had already flirted once with running for Congress in the 2nd district GOP primary against then-Rep. Charles Bass (R) in 2006.
Cullen said his party was just doing its duty to ensure it would have a quality candidate against Hodes this fall.
“We were fulfilling our responsibilities of making sure we had a good candidate in the race,” he said.
But one Republican activist, state Rep. Fran Wendelboe, saw this move as Cullen giving Horn preferential treatment.
“Bob Clegg had made it very clear that he was seriously considering the race, and Fergus was just discounting it like it didn’t really exist,” Wendelboe said. “I would have thought that had been the first phone call.”
Wendelboe lost a bitter battle to Cullen for state party chairman last year and now runs the “Reagan Network,” a political organization that charges itself with recruiting conservative candidates for statehouse GOP primaries.
“Fergus has this what he calls majority mindset, that whatever it takes to elect Republicans, no matter what kind of Republicans they are,” is all right, Wendelboe said. “We want to deliver to Fergus the most conservative candidate that he can elect in the general election.”
When asked why there is such a large spectrum of Republicans in such a small state, Cullen said it’s just the nature of the state party.
“Most of the candidates reflect the mainstream Republicans in New Hampshire, but that’s mainstream conservatives,” Cullen said. “There are some differences on social issues, but all of them would describe themselves as conservatives.”
It’s unclear in the 2nd district exactly where the divisions lie between the candidates. In a state known for its libertarian politics, Granite State pols say it’s difficult to line up Clegg, Horn, Bosse and Steiner on an ideological political spectrum.
As someone who has stayed out of traditional partisan politics until now, Horn is trying to position herself as the outsider in the race. She criticized Clegg this month for taking money from lobbyists for his legislative campaigns.
“What I see myself [as] is not the typical politician and not your typical political candidate in that way,” she said. “I am running because I think the career politicians … they have had their chance and they failed.”
When asked about any splintering within the party, Clegg said it won’t impact his candidacy.
“It doesn’t affect me in the way people think … partisan politics, and politics within the party, turn a lot of people off,” Clegg said. “People are looking for change, but the change they want is someone who will get things done.”
Bosse said he views Cullen and Wendelboe as having very different missions in the state.
“I think they have different goals right now. Fergus’ goal as the party chair, his goal is to elect the candidates we nominate, not set the direction of the party,” he said. “Fran, her goal in the Reagan Network is to get back to party principles.”
Bosse also said that in order for New Hampshire Republicans to rebound in 2008, candidates need to state their case to voters.
“I think we need to convince the voters that we’ve counted on, that there’s a reason to show up at the polls,” he said. “They didn’t see much at the polls. They saw the state party drifting. They saw the national party drifting.”
Meanwhile, in the 1st district, where Bradley is considered the more moderate Republican candidate and Stephen the more conservative, the former two-term Congressman said that even if they expose some divisions, the primaries are healthy for the GOP.
“I think that the primaries are going to energize Republicans, and we’re going to have an opportunity to talk about Republicans’ issues,” Bradley said.
Correction: April 4, 2008
The article incorrectly identified the district once held by former Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.). It was the 2nd.