Trying to explain New Hampshire politics to outsiders — even fellow New Englanders — is a bit like a frog trying to tell a tadpole what it’s like on dry land. Most people from “ovah theyah” across the border see this state as a craggy, snowbound, mostly white, sparsely populated bastion of conservative ideology that gets first crack at the primaries every four years. This is accurate, mostly, sort of. Certainly, it used to be, and for a very long time.
This is also the state that has gone for the Democratic presidential nominee in every election since 2004, when John Kerry ended the success Republicans had enjoyed there, with a few interruptions, for decades. New Hampshire’s current congressional representation is entirely comprised of Democrats — two in the House, two in the Senate — and three out of four of them are women. The pundits call us a “swing state” now, though we haven’t swung to the GOP for five elections and counting.
There is certainly plenty of craggy conservatism to be found here, and more than a bit of the wild-eyed variety. I share a ZIP code with Christopher Cantwell, the infamous “Crying Nazi” from the fascist Charlottesville riot in 2017 (one of Donald Trump’s “very fine people”), and the northern half of the state is as reliably Republican as any rural, majority-white district in Wyoming or Alabama.
The national politics of New Hampshire changed over the last two decades for a variety of reasons, but tallest among them has been the influx of Massachusetts voters moving north to find more affordable land and housing. It costs fifty bucks to look out the window in Boston these days, and much of that state has become steeply unaffordable. Avalanches of Massachusetts-style voters have piled into the southern New Hampshire counties of Rockingham, Hillsborough and Cheshire — the most populous counties in the state — and changed the voting dynamic dramatically.
Why is all of this important? Mitch McConnell and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) are looking squarely at Maggie Hassan, New Hampshire’s junior senator, who is up for reelection next year. They believe New Hampshire’s Republican governor Christopher Sununu can win her seat as part of the GOP’s overall plan to recapture the Senate majority. Polls so far suggest the seat is winnable for the GOP. To no small degree, this race is key to their hopes. Sununu has yet to commit to running for Hassan’s seat in 2022, although he has told the news media that he is “very open” to entering the race.
Governor Sununu, however, just walked that potential run into a buzzsaw.
Very quietly, the governor signed a hard-right budget bill into law last week — a law that is already creating backlash within the state. Contained within it were major tax cuts that will affect education, a ban on the teaching of critical race theory and other “divisive” topics, and a 24-week abortion ban that threatens doctors who perform them with prison and massive fines.
The abortion ban makes no exceptions for rape or incest, and it requires an ultrasound to be performed before the procedure. An audit will be performed by the state to “financially and physically separate” facilities that perform cancer screenings from facilities that perform abortions. Planned Parenthood’s cancer screenings save thousands of lives each year.
At least before the passage of the hard-right budget bill, Sununu has been very popular here, almost as popular as Massachusetts’s Republican governor, Charlie Baker. He won his seat in a landslide, and has drawn largely positive reviews for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Strangely, though, this makes him soft in the eyes of the national Republican Party, which has been taken over by people who think Italian war satellites stole the 2020 election for Joe Biden. Thus, we get this budget, a dress rehearsal for how Sununu will act and vote if he chooses to run and makes it to the Senate. All the hot buttons are included — taxes, abortion, critical race theory — to make the GOP base smile.
Not everyone is smiling. “I think it’s despicable,” responded New Hampshire’s senior senator, Jeanne Shaheen. “It is clearly people who don’t understand the ramifications of what they have done. From my history in this state, this is unprecedented in the Live Free or Die state, that we would see this extreme legislative attempt to get between the bodies of women and their doctors. If you don’t like abortion, you should support family planning.”
“Since New Hampshire became a nationally watched swing state, there have been two issues that have defined which way elections typically go,” writes James Pindell for The Boston Globe. “While, sure, the state is susceptible to the national political mood, the general rule is that if a Democrat comes out for increased taxes or if a Republican is actively trying to restrict abortion access, they are toast…. The latest polling this spring from the University of New Hampshire found that at least 88 percent of residents say abortion should be legal in at least some circumstances.”
Sununu’s troubles — should he run — don’t end there. Thanks to the inclusion of a ban on critical race theory in schools, a mass resignation has taken place on the governor’s selected panel that is devoted to promoting diversity.
“Members of a state-sanctioned diversity and inclusion panel have resigned over New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu’s decision to sign a budget that included a ban on teaching ‘divisive concepts’ about race and ethnicity,” reports The Laconia Daily Sun. “On Tuesday, 10 members of the 16-member Governor’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion submitted a letter of resignation to Sununu citing his support for the provision of the spending package he signed last week that prohibits teaching about systemic racism and sexism in public schools and state-funded programs.”
Sununu and his campaign people seem to have badly misread the voters of New Hampshire, but they also may have no choice. Sununu will join the national Republican clubhouse in the Senate if he runs and wins, and in the aftermath of Trump, you don’t get to do that without providing the kind of far-right political street cred that would make Barry Goldwater wince.
It’s a long time until November of 2022, but the radio ads attacking Sununu for these new abortion rules have already appeared in heavy rotation, and they won’t stop. This is a race worth watching if it happens: It may prove, again, that right-lunging national Republicanism is unpalatable to the locals.