Campaigns/Elections

What's the Matter With New Hampshire?

The liberaltarian dream dies in the Granite State.

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CONCORD, N.H.—You've seen enough crime flicks to know this cliché. The no-good thug (or the antihero—generally whoever Charles Bronson is playing) has been finally pushed too far, too many times, and the smug punk who dissed him is feeling the business end of a maple wood baseball bat.* The sorry victim struggles, falls, and finally gives up the ghost, but the thug keeps on slugging. It seems like forever until the naïf (or hard-luck woman—whoever Juliette Lewis is playing) who initially rooted the murderer on screams for him to stop.

"Stop! Stop! He's already dead!"

And so went the New Hampshire Democrats' annual state convention in Concord. Piled into a school in a leafy suburban area of the state capital, a collection of young Democrats, aging lacrosse moms and well-trained activists crowed and cheered as a succession of speakers celebrated the party's success. The party's victory in 2006 was of the kind that sends political writers to their Gibbon to find some fitting historical analogy.

Here's the rundown, sans references to Suleiman or Count Belisarius: Democrats took both U.S. House seats, retained the governor's office (by 50 points over a hapless Republican), seized the state Senate and grabbed 89 seats in the state's House. The last time the Democrats ran the table like this, Ulysses Grant was president. It was interpreted around the country as New England's last bastion of Republicanism finally collapsing into a mess of rubble and severed limbs. It was interpreted that way in Democratic HQ, too.

"For years, the Republican Party treated New Hampshire like its own political sandbox," said U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, a smart-alecky social worker who, with no virtually no support from national Democrats, blindsided Rep. Jed Bradley and took his House seat. "But not any more!" The audience started applauding. "Veni, vedi, vici!" The audience roared.

Nationally, polls show that the Democrats' popularity has slipped a little since taking over Congress. New Hampshire Democrats won't have any of that. The talk around the school was about growing the party's advantage, blitzing the legislature to pass liberal reforms, and—most importantly—beating Republican U.S. Sen. John Sununu. Activists sported "Stop Sununu" buttons and listened to three Senate candidates who promised to boot the man generally recognized as the most libertarian member of the World's Greatest Deliberative Body. A booth courting volunteers displayed a photo of George W. Bush giggling as he helped Sununu tighten his necktie. There was a new caption: "Let's tighten the knot!"


(Video: New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley)

This is a party out for blood. These are activists who believe the culture of New Hampshire has shifted utterly and that the remaining population of Republicans, conservatives, smokers, polluters, and drivers who forgo seatbelts are historical footnotes. "That isn't a light at the end of the tunnel," Rep. Shea-Porter crowed, knocking Republicans who think they'll make a comeback in 2008. "It's a train full of Democrats!"

The state's Republicans have seen that train. They think it's heading a little close to the cliff. Earlier this year the party moved from Concord's Main Street to a sturdy red house right outside the center of town, with décor somewhere between your parents' house and an unusually cleaned-up dorm. The old office, as Democrats love to point out, is occupied by a disgruntled Republican state representative named Fran Wendelboe. The "Reagan Network" she's set up isn't visible on a walk-by and notably devoid of bustling, hustling sectarians. But it's a little more evidence, they say, that the GOP is melting down.

Party Chairman Fergus Cullen will admit that the party blew the last election. "The election results weren't a fluke," he says. "Some of it was circumstances—the Iraq War, anger at the Republican Congress—that won't be repeated this time. But there was long-term erosion in terms of party infrastructure and changing demographics. Some of that the Democrats can take heart in."

The Republicans won or held their own in New Hampshire for decades based, it was thought, on opposition to taxes. The Union Leader newspaper backed anti-tax Republican Meldrim Thompson through 1968 and 1970 losses in the party primaries to liberal Republican Walter Peterson. (The second time he sore-losered his way onto the ballot as the candidate of George Wallace's American Independent Party.) The third time, in 1972, he won and credited taking the paper's anti-sales tax, anti-income tax pledge for his victory. Thirty-five years later the state still eschews those taxes, and the GOP offers a bumper sticker map of New England with two colors: high-tax neighbors in blue, no-hassle New Hampshire in red.

It's a great issue that no longer works for the party. The Democrats have simply evolved, nuancing the tax issue and promising, like current, more-popular-than-Jesus Gov. John Lynch, not to bring a sales tax to the Granite state. "When the Democratic candidate pledges not to raise taxes, the issue is off the table," Cullen says. "We can't win on it."

Finessing that issue and riding the unpopularity of the reigning party put the Democrats in charge. And in between their vigorous torchings of Republican effigies, Democrats have used their clout to pass laws anathema to that other creature of cliché, the New Hampshire individualist. The anti-war, small-government voter who wanted to register disgust with the GOP wrangled a Democratic legislature that's dramatically shifted the center of state politics. Civil unions for gay couples were legalized and signed by Gov. Lynch. The state House passed a seatbelt bill and a bill to ban smoking in bars. Both were squelched, barely, by the Democratic Senate. (The smoking ban has passed the House again, however, and is tipped to go all the way.) One of the Republicans who killed the smoking ban gave a sorrowful quote to the New York Times: "I'm surprised that a lot of the 'Live Free or Diers' who usually confront us with statements like 'stay out of our life' or 'we don't need more legislation' were the ones asking us to ban smoking."

So the state's voters absorbed two lessons since the Democratic takeover. The first is that the Democrats' evolution on taxes occurred in a vacuum, and on the typical "nanny" issues the party's reading from the same hymn book as those other New England liberals. The second is that petty individual rights are still overwhelmingly popular in the state. Republicans glow when talking about the way the new bosses have "overreached," seeing the issues that will yank them out of a prematurely dug grave.


(Video: New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman Fergus Cullen)

Democrats are too busy war-whooping to ponder it, but the evidence suggests that they might not be locked into power. The state is absorbing more socially liberal voters from Massachusetts, and November 2006 did gave them an opportunity for permanent majority status. But they're mistaking a desperate electorate for a lovestruck electorate. When the state runs out of the ephemeral, white-hot anger at the Iraq War that motivated libertarian-minded voters to give them a shot, Democrats won't be positioned as the kind of government-out-of-your-bedroom-and-garage-and-wallet "liberaltarians" that could perpetually win elections.

The knock on New Hampshire's presidential primary is that the state is too small, too white, too rural to provide a real measure of what the nation thinks. That's less true this year. New Hampshire is where Democrats will learn whether they've conquered the GOP and need to brainstorm ideas for corpse disposal, and it's where Republicans will figure that winning back libertarian voters is the key to their coming, miraculous resurrection.

David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.

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*Changed from "oak."