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Politics / POLITICS

New Hampshire’s Tempest From a Tea Party Chairman

Republican presidential candidate and Texas Gov. Rick Perry (left) walks with State GOP Chair Jack Kimball along Central Street outside Harvey's Bakery and Coffee Shop August 18 in Dover, N.H.(Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

photo of Alex  Roarty
August 25, 2011

Even as the presidential primary heats up in New Hampshire, statewide Republicans recently have focused on a far more parochial matter: the status of their embattled state party chairman, Jack Kimball. New Hampshire’s libertarian political culture has been receptive to the Tea Party, but its Tea Party-backed chairman is being accused of wasteful spending and incompetent management.

On Thursday, the ongoing saga added another chapter: Beset by charges of incompetence and pressured by the state’s most powerful Republicans to leave his post, Kimball defiantly announced he would not step down from his post.

"I will fight this until the very end,” he said during a press conference on Thursday, according to WMUR-TV. “I will walk out with my head held high either way. I don't think this is healthy for our country or our state.”

 

Kimball’s defiant speech is the latest twist in a controversy rife with allegations of bribery and widespread disgust with the embattled chairman’s missteps since he took over in January. The episode has become an embarrassment for the state party, even as its involvement in the presidential primary there intensifies.

Nearly every influential New Hampshire Republican—including the state’s most prominent elected officials—has asked Kimball to step down, but the chairman has framed the controversy as a split between conservatives and the party’s establishment. If the party wants to retain tea party appeal, he argues, it needs to keep him as chairman. He’s even accused Washington Republicans of bribing him so he’d leave.

But even as he resists calls to step down, Kimball soon might not have a choice. On September 1, the state party’s executive committee is set to meet to decide his fate. Most expect them to vote to remove him from his position. “I sort of gave him six months, but now he’s given rope to those looking to hang him,” said former New Hampshire Republican Party chairman Fergus Cullen.

The schism between Kimball and the party’s establishment has simmered since the tea party leader won control of the New Hampshire GOP in January, narrowly edging out businesswoman Juliana Bergeron. Kimball won the chairmanship despite the opposition of outgoing chairman John Sununu, a longtime force in Granite State politics and former chief of staff to George H.W. Bush.

The chairman has risen to prominence after running for governor in 2010, losing badly in the primary but emerging as a tea party leader nonetheless. Kimball's former supporters describe him as a prototypical tea party member: someone who had almost no involvement in politics before 2009, only to get involved when President Obama took office.

“He’s a classic example of someone who had zero political activity previous to 2009,” Cullen said. “He is an authentic product of the tea party movement.”

New Hampshire political analysts are highly skeptical the controversy will affect the presidential primary, but the standoff still serves as a cautionary tale of what could happen when the insurgents who once ran against the political establishment suddenly find themselves leading it. 

“The good news is, [Kimball’s] new to the process,” said Steve Duprey, a former New Hampshire Republican chairman who wants Kimball to resign. “The bad news is, he’s new to the process. So he didn’t have the sort of nuts-and-bolts knowledge of the organization we needed.”

That inexperience contributed to a poor start to his tenure. New Hampshire Republican insiders have criticized his lackluster fundraising and high overhead for a small state-party organization. Most recently, he outraged party loyalists when he admitted to signing a petition to put the Libertarian Party on the ballot in 2012. Criticism of Kimball fermented to formal calls for his resignation last week, with the state’s speaker of the House, William O’Brien, asking Kimball to step down. O’Brien had the backing of U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, U.S. Reps. Charlie Bass and Frank Guinta, and state Senate President Peter Bragdon—all of whom reiterated their desire for him to step down in the wake of Thursday’s news conference. Kimball responded by alleging that the Republican Governors Association had offered the state party $100,000 if he stepped down—an allegation the association denies.

Kimball has argued that if he quits as chairman, the party will sever its ties with the tea party movement that helped spur it to victory last year. But even after alleging that national party officials were trying to bribe him out of office—a charge that seemed designed to draw outrage from activists distrustful of the party establishment—many tea party members have yet to rally to his defense.

“If Kimball is really this bridge to the tea party wing of the party, we think we should be hearing more of an outcry than we’ve heard,” said Dante Scala, political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.

The most tangible sign of his flagging leadership came during two local special elections earlier this year in bellwether districts. New Hampshire’s state House has 400 members, a unique setup that puts increased emphasis on the state party organization when an off-year election occurs.

The New Hampshire GOP, which had swept to huge victories in 2010, lost two special elections this year in state legislative seats that were held by Republicans. Both were seen as winnable races, and state Republicans saw the losses as a sign of weak leadership from the state party.

Privately, New Hampshire GOP insiders fear that if the situation isn’t resolved soon, those losses could translate into trouble for Bass and Guinta, two freshmen elected in 2010. As two of the most vulnerable Republicans up for re-election in 2012, they could use organizational help from a strong state party to get out the vote. Both are relatively moderate, and don’t share the ideological inflexibility that has characterized Kimball’s tenure.

Indeed, some activists interviewed showed a decidedly pragmatic approach to the party chairmanship position. They were less interested in a chairman who shared the views than in one who can effectively run a state party.

“He and I agree with on policy issues, but I wouldn’t defend him just on that,” said state Sen. Jim Forsythe, who is chairman of Ron Paul’s New Hampshire campaign. “What matters for the chair is the ability to organize.”

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