New Hampshire Senate: Did Republicans Get Rolled in the Granite State?

by Stuart Rothenberg February 8, 2009 · 11:05 PM EST

Initial reports that Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) would be appointed Commerce secretary were invariably followed with a caveat that Gov. John Lynch (D) had agreed to appoint another Republican to fill the vacancy, thereby maintaining the current Senate balance of power and denying Senate Democrats a 60-vote majority.

The crucial question, however, is not whether New Hampshire’s soon-to-be- appointed Senator is a Republican or will caucus with Republicans, but whether she will vote with Democrats to limit debate when other Republicans are trying to keep a filibuster going or pass a key amendment.

If Sen.-designee Bonnie Newman becomes the Democrats’ 60th vote to bring the Employee Free Choice Act to the floor (assuming it ever gets that far) or to confirm a judge that other Republicans oppose, it won’t matter what her party affiliation is.

In the early 1980s, then-Texas Rep. Phil Gramm still caucused with Democrats for months after he started voting like a Republican and working strategically with members of the GOP.

Some Republicans believe that Newman will vote pretty much as Gregg would have on fiscal matters, though they express less certainty about her vote on cultural matters and education issues.

But conservatives clearly have more than enough reason to worry because all of the praise being heaped on her by New Hampshire Democrats suggests she won’t be as reliable as the least dependable of the GOP’s current sitting Senators.

Newman, after all, endorsed Lynch when he first sought the governorship in 2002 against the sitting governor, Republican Craig Benson. And she has described herself as a “reasonable Republican” — not exactly the kind of self-identification that suggests she has an altogether favorable impression of her own party.

Lynch’s selection of Newman, who has already indicated she will not seek a full term, is a political masterstroke (as was President Barack Obama’s selection of Gregg), even if the more liberal elements of his own party are unhappy that he picked a Republican.

In fact, the trade of Gregg for Newman is so one-sided in favor of Democrats that it is reminiscent of the 1964 deal in which the Chicago Cubs sent future Hall of Famer Lou Brock and two others to the St. Louis Cardinals for aging pitcher Ernie Broglio and others.

Democrats get rid of Gregg, who, had he sought re-election in 2010, would have been the GOP’s strongest nominee, and get an open seat to shoot at instead. They get a new Republican Senator who has supported Democrats in the past, calls herself a moderate Republican and has the kind of résumé that suggests she’ll fit in just fine with many of her new Democratic colleagues.

Obama gets a new Republican recruit who can push the president’s economic agenda and a new Senator who might look more kindly on some White House initiatives.

And Lynch once again seems to place himself above partisan politics, enhancing his already considerable stature and standing, and avoids having to anger either of the state’s two Democratic House Members by picking the other.

Democrats start out no worse than even money to pick up the Senate seat next year.

Rep. Paul Hodes (D), who had been preparing to challenge Gregg, quickly indicated he would run for the open seat. The state’s other Member, Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D), has not indicated her plans, but insiders doubt that she will enter the race against Hodes.

“I think he is going to avoid a major primary,” one savvy political observer said, “but everyone needs to keep an eye on Shea-Porter.”

Veteran Granite State Republicans agree that the first name on most lists is former Sen. John Sununu, who was defeated for reelection last year. But they also agree that Sununu is “lukewarm” about the idea and already seems to have “moved on” after his loss. Only 44 years old, he has plenty of time to re-enter politics at a later date.

Still, the former Senator’s father, former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, is now state GOP chairman, putting him in a unique position to recruit his son, if he so chooses.

After the younger Sununu, the name mentioned most often is former Gov. Steve Merrill, who is president of the Bingham Consulting Group. He served two terms as governor, winning by overwhelmingly margins in 1992 and 1994 (the state still has two-year terms), but he did not seek a third term. Merrill ran unsuccessfully for Republican National Committee chairman in 1997.

Former Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.) is also mentioned. Bass, who was upset by Hodes in 2006, was a victim of the Democratic wave that year and would be a credible GOP nominee against Hodes for the Senate seat.

After Sununu, Merrill and Bass, the party is left with much lesser figures. Among those mentioned are radio talk-show host Jennifer Horn and former Health and Human Services Commissioner John Stephen. Horn lost to Hodes last year, while Stephen has lost two GOP primary bids for Congress — hardly the kind of résumés that would generate Republican optimism.

One more interesting name floating around is Sean Mahoney, a forty-something businessman and the state’s Republican National Committeeman, who finished third (behind Bradley and Stephen) in the 2002 1st district GOP primary for the seat left open when Sununu ran for Senate. Bradley won the nomination and the seat that year, but was ousted by Shea-Porter in 2006.

Mahoney owns Millyard Communications Inc., which publishes Business NH Magazine, and reportedly is showing at least some interest in the race. He has personal resources.

While New Hampshire is no longer reliably Republican, its voting behavior over the past few years may well exaggerate Democratic strength in the state. Both the Senate race and Hodes’ Congressional district could well see competitive races if the state GOP can recruit credible nominees.