Politics

Blue Challenge

John Shea, of Nelson, New Hampshire, is nothing if not persistent. For many years, he has wanted a seat on the state Executive Council, the...
by | December 31, 2006

John Shea, of Nelson, New Hampshire, is nothing if not persistent. For many years, he has wanted a seat on the state Executive Council, the five-member body that has veto power over gubernatorial appointments. He ran in 1998 and lost. He tried again in 2002 and 2004 -- and lost both times. In 2006, he tried once more, but he was something of a fatalist about his chances. Not only did he refuse to accept campaign donations, or spend much time appealing to voters, he left on Election Day for a vacation in Europe. "I had a ticket that I had to use by the end of November," Shea explains. When he arrived at his hotel in Belgium, there was a surprising message waiting for him: He'd won.

A long shot such as Shea could win in New Hampshire last year for one reason: He's a Democrat. His party won victories in New Hampshire in 2006 that justify almost any metaphor of sudden upheaval. Blizzard, landslide, tsunami, earthquake -- they all fit. Democrats gained 89 seats in the 400-member state House and erased a 2-to-1 deficit in the Senate, taking both chambers of the legislature for the first time since 1874. They ousted both incumbent Republican U.S. House members, reelected Governor John Lynch with 74 percent of the vote and, thanks to Shea's win, gained control of the Executive Council. In one dramatic day, New Hampshire Democrats acquired more influence over state politics than they had had since the 19th century.

No one saw this coming. Lynch was a strong favorite for reelection, and Democrats knew they had recruited good state Senate candidates, but a sweep of this magnitude seemed utterly unthinkable. In the final week before the election, the chairman of the state Republican Party declared that Democrats wouldn't gain more than five seats in the House.

The events that took place in much of America on November 6 took place in greatly magnified form in New Hampshire. But they raise essentially the same question: Was this a fluke occurrence or a hint of things to come?

It's a question that's being asked in quite a few states right now. In two years, President Bush will be on his way out, Jack Abramoff and Mark Foley may be receding from public consciousness and popular figures such as John Lynch might not even be on the ballot. Unless something bigger than these fleeting factors is at work, Republicans may be well positioned to regain the ground they lost.

But if there was a more fundamental reason for the results on November 6, the consequences could be dramatic. That's because the places where the Democrats made the biggest inroads are nearly all bellwethers in state and federal elections. New Hampshire, Iowa, Minnesota and Colorado are presidential swing states; Democrats triumphed in all of them in 2006 (the lone exception being the reelection of Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota's GOP governor). Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania, large and crucial states, each voted for a Democrat for governor and imposed Republican losses at the legislative level. If Democrats can consolidate those gains, they are likely to become the dominant policy-making party in American state government over the next decade -- and perhaps gain a natural advantage in presidential politics as well.

LOYAL TO LYNCH

Everyone agrees that the New Hampshire shock of 2006 was linked, like other Democratic victories, to the unpopularity of the Iraq war, President Bush's sagging poll numbers and Republican scandals on Capitol Hill. But it remains to be explained why Republicans were humiliated so much more thoroughly in the Granite State than anywhere else.

To start with, there were some highly specific local provocations. They go back to the election of 2002, which, ironically, was an awful year for Democrats in New Hampshire. Republicans won almost every office that year, but they made two big mistakes: They broke federal law by hiring a telemarketing firm to jam Democratic phone lines, and they elected Craig Benson governor.

The phone-jamming scandal, which led to a prison sentence for the executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Party, did more than tarnish the image of the GOP in the state. In paying for legal expenses, the party nearly went broke, cutting into its campaign budget and making it more difficult to recruit quality candidates, who knew they couldn't expect much financial help. Last month, state Republicans agreed to pay the Democrats $125,000 over five years in a settlement.

When Benson, a wealthy computer entrepreneur, took office after the 2002 election, he seemed to be assured of at least four years in office. Although New Hampshire is one of only two states that have two-year gubernatorial terms, no governor since 1926 had lost his first reelection bid. Nevertheless, Benson lost. Standoffish in personal manner and plagued by ethical accusations, he was beaten by Lynch in November 2004. In many ways, that was the key ingredient in the 2006 result.

Lynch, a political newcomer, came to office promising nonpartisanship and largely delivered. When a centrist coalition from both parties chose moderate Republican Doug Scamman as the House speaker, Lynch opted to work closely with him to fix a budget deficit, replenish the state's rainy-day fund and approve an ethics reform law.

The Democratic governor won plaudits for his handling of two major flooding events. He abandoned a trade mission in Germany to return home and supervise the cleanup work and handed out his personal cell phone number to citizens who had been affected. Lynch's overall record built goodwill toward the Democratic Party as a whole, especially in contests for the Executive Council, whose traditional function as a counterweight to gubernatorial power no longer seemed crucial to voters with the popular Lynch running the state. The governor's coattails were even more important because voting a straight party ticket is as easy as checking a box in New Hampshire.

But Republicans seemed to have a few advantages of their own in 2006. Two months before Election Day, the state Supreme Court appeared to hand the GOP a gift by invalidating the state's school funding system. This wasn't much of a shock, since over the past decade it's been routine for the court to invalidate every school funding plan sent its way. But Republicans expected the decision to work in their favor. To understand that, you have to take into account New Hampshire's deeply entrenched political culture.

TAXES AND SCHOOLS

That culture is immortalized for anyone who visits the Governor's Office by a sign in the official portrait of Meldrim Thomson Jr., "Low taxes are the result of low spending." Thomson, a Republican who served from 1973 to 1979, believed in this warning above anything else. He made himself popular as the opponent of almost any new tax, on anything, at any time, for any reason. Keeping taxes low has long been an overriding goal for the state's leaders. That's been accomplished by refusal to enact any broad-based income tax or sales tax.

The acceptance of this anti-tax ethos kept New Hampshire Republican, even as the rest of the Northeast trended toward the Democrats. To prevent anyone from forgetting the lesson, a large map in the window of the Republican Party offices, just across the street from the capitol, shows Vermont, Massachusetts and Maine, all with sales and income taxes, and New Hampshire without either. "Lowest tax burden in the nation," it crows. "Republican leadership working for you!" Thomson would be proud.

Over the past two decades, however, this culture has been challenged by the ongoing school funding dispute. Without a sales or income tax, schools lean especially heavily on local property taxes, adding to inequalities between rich districts and poor ones. The poor districts challenged this situation on constitutional grounds, and the state Supreme Court has consistently agreed with them. In the past several years, a statewide property tax has invested modest amounts of additional money in poorer communities and mid-wealth districts have filed their own suit, claiming the state still isn't meeting its obligations.

In September, the court ruled in favor of the middle-income plaintiffs. Even more significant, the ruling warned that if the legislature didn't define an "adequate education" and then fund it by July 2007, the court would impose its own solution.

This decision served as a rallying cry for Republicans. They finally seemed to have an issue of sufficient strength to counteract Lynch's growing popularity. Conservative Republicans began promoting a solution many of them had advocated for a long time: amend the state Constitution to remove the court's jurisdiction over school funding. Plans to place a court-limiting amendment on the state ballot in 2006 fizzled out, but the Republican gubernatorial nominee, state Representative Jim Coburn, and other GOP candidates made the issue central to their fall campaigns.

The specter of broad-based taxes had hurt Democrats in the state before. In 1999, the only time in recent history the Democrats held the state Senate, they voted for an income tax and then saw their majority erased at the polls in 2000. The Democratic nominee for governor in 2002, an income-tax supporter, lost in a landslide. This time, though, the anti-tax strategy didn't work.

Most observers don't think this is because New Hampshire's libertarian streak is waning. "They don't want an income tax, they don't want a sales tax," says Scamman. "They don't want the government to tell them how to blow their nose." But Lynch promised repeatedly to veto any tax increases that reached his desk. In addition, many voters seemed to feel uncomfortable with the idea of amending the state constitution to strip away the jurisdiction of its highest court. Equally important, the image of Republicans in power at the national level had increasingly come to be one of fiscal profligacy, not restraint.

To put the matter in only slightly simplified terms, Democrats stole the mantle of fiscal conservatism from Republicans in New Hampshire. They successfully presented themselves as the party best able to protect the public pocketbook.

DEEPER ROOTS

But there's a strong case to be made that the Democratic takeover has roots much deeper than the popularity of Lynch or the blunders of Republican strategy. In many ways, the events of November 6 represent the final stage of a long transformation that in five decades has changed New England from one of the most Republican regions of the country to the most Democratic. Democrats now control every legislative chamber in the region and all but one seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. "The Yankee moderate Republicans are going the way of the dinosaur," says Dante Scala, a political scientist at Saint Anselm College in Manchester.

In a sense, what's happened in New England is a mirror image of what's taken place in many Southern states since the 1960s. The changes begin at the top, then filter down to lower-level offices. Bill Clinton won New Hampshire's presidential vote in 1992, only the fourth Democrat in the 20th century to do so; Clinton carried it again in 1996 and John Kerry did so in 2004. Jeanne Shaheen claimed the governorship for Democrats in 1996 after nearly two decades of Republican control, and held it twice. Finally, this year, the party made major gains at all levels of office.

Increasingly, Republicans are associated in New Hampshire with a Southern-based and socially conservative national party -- a party that believes government has a role in promoting traditional morality, in opposition to New Hampshire's libertarian inclinations. Democrats now seem to be the party of smaller, more permissive government, which is what most New Hampshirites still want.

For all these reasons, the gains in New Hampshire in 2006 look different from the ones that Democrats made elsewhere. New Hampshire was making a dramatic break with its partisan past; states elsewhere were moving back to past Democratic loyalties that had slipped away in recent years. Iowa and Minnesota, among the most Democratic states in the country two decades ago, had been trending steadily Republican, to the point that, in 2004, Bush was the first GOP presidential candidate to carry Iowa since 1984. That trend reversed itself in 2006. Democrats swept to power in both houses of the Iowa legislature and gained 19 seats in the Minnesota House, taking control of that chamber as well.

Because the 2006 upheaval in Iowa and Minnesota came as a reversal, rather than an evolution, political analysts are more likely to view it as a temporary event. They say Democrats won because their voters were more motivated, because the party recruited good candidates and because the national mood had an impact. What they don't see, at least not yet, is anything to make them believe a lasting political realignment has occurred.

LEFT OR CENTER?

Whatever the local situations that might have contributed to the 2006 result, however, the issue of whether Democrats can consolidate it hinges mostly on what they do now. In state after state, Democrats have a choice: to pursue the goals that have energized their party's activists during their time in the wilderness or to chart a cautious course of moderation and compromise. Nowhere is that choice starker than in New Hampshire, with the looming deadline on school finance imposed by the state Supreme Court.

Despite the pledges of Governor Lynch, the Democrats who now run the New Hampshire legislature might be expected to respond to this mandate with a sales or income tax. Both new Democratic leaders, Speaker of the House Terie Norelli and Senate President Sylvia Larsen, have supported income taxes in the past. In the opinion of Andru Volinsky, lead attorney for the low-income school districts, "If the legislative leaders in the House and Senate follow their own lead, we'll be fine."

But the legislative leaders seem likely, at least at first, to follow the governor's tax-cautious lead. Part of the reason is that Democrats in the legislature owe so much to Lynch for their victory that they are not inclined to undermine his leadership. But, more than that, there's a sense that the party has spent so long waiting for its chance that it cannot afford any move that might return it to minority status. For example, Martha Fuller Clark, a veteran Democratic legislator who used to support an income tax, is backing away from that stand now. "If anything would ensure that Republicans would recapture the majority," she says, "it would be to expect the governor to break his promise."

Difficult and politically symbolic choices await Democrats in almost every state where they gained ground in 2006. In Maryland, where they now have the governorship in addition to their lopsided legislative majorities, an increase in education spending several years ago that didn't come with any funding source is now creating a budget crisis. That means new revenue will have to be raised or spending will have to be cut. Deval Patrick, Massachusetts' first Democratic governor in 16 years, may face pressure to accept a reduction in the state income tax to 5 percent, which voters approved in 2000 but which has never been implemented. In Michigan, lawmakers have already agreed to eliminate the state's Single Business Tax, which brings in $1.9 billion annually, meaning Governor Jennifer Granholm and her fellow Democrats, who have a freshly minted majority in the state House of Representatives, will immediately have to overhaul the state's tax system. The way they choose to do that work will send clear signals about where on the ideological spectrum they wish to settle.

In Iowa, the debate goes beyond taxes. Democrats are wondering whether, now that they have complete control of state government for the first time since the 1960s, they should pursue the policies of dramatic change that many of them have been advocating for years. The last time they had a similar opportunity, in the aftermath of the 1964 election, Democrats altered the tax system and abolished the death penalty. Their one-party rule lasted only two years.

This time, the Democratic wish list includes initiatives such as a cigarette tax increase and a repeal of anti-union right-to-work laws. But that agenda may not get very far. That's partially because the victories in Iowa in 2006 were due in large part to the recruitment of moderate Democrats skeptical of drastic change, and partly because even Democratic ideologues don't want history to repeat itself. "They got this majority," says David Yepsen, a Des Moines Register columnist, "not by running as crazy Deaniac liberals but by being centrists. They know that."

DEMOCRATIC DILEMMA

It's a mistake, however, to think that the preference for caution isn't fraught with dangers of its own. If the Democratic Party's most loyal supporters, many of whom don't view "Deaniac liberal" as an epithet, see no progress toward their long-cherished policy goals, they are likely to become disillusioned and decide that all the hard work of 2006 was a waste of their time.

This isn't merely a theoretical concern. Volinsky, who has been fighting for a new education funding system in New Hampshire for nearly two decades, is already talking about his disappointment with the party. "There's a sense among the Lynch leadership that they are pretenders to power," he says, "and that if they don't act like good Republicans, they won't stay in power."

Volinsky may still get his way, however, if only after what he terms a "constitutional calamity." Governor Lynch appears likely to offer a school funding plan similar to what he proposed two years ago, when his suggestions were approved only in part by the legislature. This could entail more targeted aid, improved funding formulas and school accountability measures -- but no new broad-based taxes to fund educational improvement.

The question is what happens if, as seems probable, these proposals don't win court approval. The only obvious options then would be new state taxes, which the court might impose on its own, or the court-limiting constitutional amendment conservatives prefer. Lynch has said he would consider a narrowly crafted constitutional amendment, but the new legislature seems even less inclined to support it than the previous one. Furthermore, such an amendment would require a vote of the people, which likely couldn't take place until 2008.

If the new Democratic leaders find themselves under court order, will they accept a sales or income tax, knowing it might cost them their majority? If not, would they be willing to create a confrontation between the legislative and executive branches of government -- and between factions of their own party? No one knows, and that uncertainty gives Republicans reason to hope. "I think it's going to be their Waterloo," says state Representative Fran Wendelboe, a candidate to chair the state GOP.

Democrats in New Hampshire, like their counterparts in Minnesota, Iowa, Massachusetts and other states where the blue tide came in last November, are fully aware that two dangerous years lie ahead of them. But they also are aware that Republicans, who are licking their wounds and trying to heal their own split between moderates and conservatives, would gladly switch places. And they know one more thing: that if they find a way to deal successfully with their one overriding dilemma, they could stay in power for quite a while. In the words of John Shea, back from Europe and ready to be an executive councilor, "It's going to be fun."

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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