GOP Woes in ‘McCain Country’

Arizona’s senior senator got big boosts from New Hampshire’s 2000 and 2008 primaries.

National Journal
James A. Barnes
Add to Briefcase
James A. Barnes
July 4, 2008, 8 p.m.

Few places have been bet­ter to John Mc­Cain than tiny New Hamp­shire, which twice gave him huge vic­tor­ies in its Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial primary. His first win made him a strong con­tender for his party’s 2000 nom­in­a­tion. But it was his Janu­ary 2008 comeback, after his cam­paign had been prac­tic­ally writ­ten off, that sealed his spe­cial re­la­tion­ship with the state.

“New Hamp­shire is Mc­Cain coun­try,” says former state Demo­crat­ic Party Chair­man George Bruno.

That bond is something Mc­Cain is count­ing on as he tries to flip the state back in­to the Re­pub­lic­an column this fall. “New Hamp­shire knows John Mc­Cain bet­ter than any oth­er state, ex­cept pos­sibly Ari­zona,” said Gran­ite State GOP polit­ic­al con­sult­ant Mike Den­nehy, a seni­or ad­viser to the Mc­Cain cam­paign. “And you could make the ar­gu­ment that the people of New Hamp­shire know him bet­ter than they do in Ari­zona.”

Des­pite that fa­mili­ar­ity and fond­ness, the Re­pub­lic­an stand­ard-bear­er still faces chal­lenges as he at­tempts to lay claim to New Hamp­shire. The state has been trend­ing Demo­crat­ic over the past two elec­tions. And pre­sumptive Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee Barack Obama will work hard to dis­cred­it Mc­Cain’s mav­er­ick im­age, which has played well in the state.

New Hamp­shire is the only state that swung in­to the Demo­crat­ic column in 2004 after go­ing for George W. Bush four years earli­er. Demo­crat John Kerry’s nar­row vic­tory—50 per­cent to 49 per­cent—came from ex­pand­ing his party’s mar­gins in its tra­di­tion­al strong­holds, such as Stafford County, home of the Uni­versity of New Hamp­shire, but also from pick­ing up two blue-col­lar counties—Coos on the north­ern tip of the state, where pa­per and pulp man­u­fac­tur­ing have been a main­stay of the loc­al eco­nomy, and Sul­li­van on the state’s south­west­ern bor­der with Ver­mont, with its old mill towns, Clare­mont and New­port.

Giv­en the slide in the state’s eco­nomy—pa­per man­u­fac­tur­ing has vir­tu­ally hal­ted in the north coun­try; rev­en­ues from the state’s busi­ness profits tax and real es­tate trans­fer tax are off; and there is un­cer­tainty over how $4-a-gal­lon gas­ol­ine will af­fect tour­ism head­ing in­to the fall leaf sea­son—Obama could build on Kerry’s suc­cesses.

“The sum­mer will be telling,” said Obama New Hamp­shire Co-Chair­man Jim De­mers. Like­wise, De­mers poin­ted out that the cost of home-heat­ing oil is go­ing to hit many Gran­ite Staters hard right around elec­tion time. “That, I be­lieve, will be a shock to their sys­tem when they have to pay for that first big tank of heat­ing oil in Oc­to­ber.”

In 2004, Pres­id­ent Bush in­creased his mar­gins in the state’s two most pop­u­lous counties, Hills­bor­ough and Rock­ing­ham, which in­clude not only Manchester, with eth­nic en­claves that have frus­trated Demo­crats in re­cent cycles, but also the Bo­ston ex­urbs along the state’s south­east­ern bor­der.

In 2006, Demo­crats swept the en­tire state, cap­tur­ing its two con­gres­sion­al seats and tak­ing con­trol of both cham­bers of the state Le­gis­lature. And since then, the GOP brand has shown oth­er signs of weak­ness. In the pres­id­en­tial primary, un­declared voters, the in­de­pend­ents that both cam­paigns think will be cru­cial to suc­cess in the state this fall, showed a strong pref­er­ence for play­ing in the Demo­crat­ic con­test, not­with­stand­ing Mc­Cain’s ap­peal. Ac­cord­ing to the sec­ret­ary of state’s of­fice, 121,515 un­declared voters, who can par­ti­cip­ate in either party’s primary, took a Demo­crat­ic bal­lot. Only 75,522 op­ted for a GOP bal­lot. At the same time, the Re­pub­lic­an re­gis­tra­tion ad­vant­age over the Demo­crats dropped be­low 13,000.

New Hamp­shire Demo­crats are rais­ing more money than their Re­pub­lic­an coun­ter­parts. Fur­ther­more, can­did­ate fil­ings for the next elec­tion are now closed, and the GOP has not fielded can­did­ates for more than 70 Demo­crat­ic-con­trolled seats in the 400-mem­ber state House.

“There’s no doubt that the Re­pub­lic­an Party has struggled over the last few years to get their bear­ings and win some elec­tions here,” said Mc­Cain ad­viser Den­nehy. But he pre­dicts, “The race is go­ing to come down to the in­de­pend­ent un­declared voters. And [Mc­Cain] is someone who has a proven re­cord of work­ing across the par­tis­an aisles.”

He con­tras­ted Mc­Cain’s re­cent town hall meet­ing, where he took ques­tions from all comers, with the Demo­crat­ic stand­ard-bear­er’s June 27 vis­it to the town of Unity with former rival Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton. Den­nehy de­rided the Demo­crats’ joint ap­pear­ance as “a pub­li­city stunt.”

The out­ing may have been care­fully cho­reo­graphed, but its im­agery was crit­ic­al for the Obama cam­paign, which will need sol­id sup­port from Clin­ton’s sup­port­ers in the fall. One pos­it­ive sign for Obama was that after he and Clin­ton spoke and worked the crowd, they dropped by a nearby ele­ment­ary school where sev­er­al prom­in­ent Demo­crat­ic wo­men who sup­por­ted Clin­ton in the primary had gathered. Ac­cord­ing to one at­tendee, Clin­ton’s fe­male back­ers were all jock­ey­ing to get their pic­ture taken with Obama.

Not every Demo­crat in the Gran­ite State is sold on Obama, of course. The day be­fore the Unity event, the Mc­Cain cam­paign an­nounced form­a­tion of New Hamp­shire Demo­crats for Mc­Cain, which Jim Mc­Co­naha and Valery Mitchell of Con­cord co-chair. Long act­ive in Demo­crat­ic Party polit­ics, the couple backed Demo­crat Chris­toph­er Dodd in the pres­id­en­tial sweepstakes this year. Mc­Co­naha was an early back­er of Bill Clin­ton in the 1992 elec­tion.

“I’ve cer­tainly heard the com­ments from people who say, ‘Gee, I was really count­ing on Hil­lary, I’m sorry she pulled out; I don’t know what I’m go­ing to do now,’ ” noted former state Demo­crat­ic Chair­man Bruno, who backed Bill Richard­son in the primary but is now sup­port­ing Obama. “You’d ex­pect, to some ex­tent, for people to be think­ing that way. But for people to be act­ing that way and go­ing over the cliff is cer­tainly a sur­prise.”

The Obama team ex­pects that most of the voters who sided with an­oth­er Demo­crat in the primary will come in­to the fold by this fall. “It’s go­ing to take some time,” De­mers said. “Let’s face it: This was a very long and gruel­ing cam­paign. Some people here worked very hard and got very per­son­ally in­volved with Barack Obama’s or Hil­lary Clin­ton’s cam­paign. And a lot of people feel like they need a little va­ca­tion from pres­id­en­tial polit­ics.”

At the same time, Mc­Cain has work to do with his Re­pub­lic­an base. His strength in New Hamp­shire comes from his pop­ular­ity among in­de­pend­ents, a plur­al­ity of the state’s elect­or­ate. Ac­cord­ing to exit polls con­duc­ted for the tele­vi­sion net­works and the As­so­ci­ated Press, Mc­Cain cap­tured the GOP primary in both 2000 and 2008 be­cause of his sup­port from in­de­pend­ents.

This year’s exit poll also found that the most-con­ser­vat­ive voters in the Re­pub­lic­an primary backed former Mas­sachu­setts Gov. Mitt Rom­ney. And, lately, that wing of the party is com­ing around to Mc­Cain.

On Ju­ly 1, Rom­ney’s state dir­ect­or, Jim Mer­rill, and former Rom­ney New Hamp­shire Chair­man Bruce Keough spent time at the Mc­Cain headquar­ters in Manchester, phoning in­di­vidu­als in their cam­paign net­works to en­list sup­port for the sen­at­or from Ari­zona. And Rom­ney him­self is sched­uled to march on Mc­Cain’s be­half in the Fourth of Ju­ly parade in Wolfe­boro, where Rom­ney has a va­ca­tion home on Lake Win­nipe­sau­kee.

“The base is com­ing to­geth­er,” Mer­rill said. But he ad­ded that Mc­Cain’s chal­lenge “is to go bey­ond the Re­pub­lic­an base” and com­pete for in­de­pend­ents, which Obama “is go­ing to fight him tooth and nail for.”

In­deed, the Obama cam­paign un­der­stands that it can­not al­low Mc­Cain to main­tain his mav­er­ick ap­peal in the state and will have to stress his many votes in sup­port of Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion policy and his new sup­port for lift­ing the morator­i­um on off­shore drilling and for Bush’s tax cuts.

As Obama Co-Chair De­mers puts it, “This will be a cam­paign where the in­de­pend­ents will have to learn who both the can­did­ates really are.”

What We're Following See More »
Sen. Graham Supporting Sessions
3 hours ago

"Sen. Lindsay Graham said he is '100 percent behind' embattled Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and said there would be 'holy hell to pay' if President Donald Trump fires him. Graham also said that if the president went after special prosecutor Robert Mueller, who’s directing the investigation into possible contacts between Trump’s circle and Russia, that could be the 'beginning of the end of the Trump presidency, unless Mueller did something wrong.'"

Sanders New WH Press Secretary
4 hours ago

"With little pomp or circumstance, Sarah Huckabee Sanders stepped up to the briefing room podium and got straight to business Friday, reading announcements about "Made in America Week" and a new executive order on defense. Minutes later, newly minted communications director Anthony Scaramucci announced she was formally taking over as White House press secretary. In the aftermath of a chaotic communications staff shakeup at the White House last week, there was little attention paid to a new milestone as Sanders assumed the role."

No Instructions to Pentagon, No Change in Transgender Policy
5 hours ago

"The highest ranking military officer in the country said that the military’s transgender policy won’t actively change until President Trump sends specific directions to the Pentagon. 'There will be no modifications to the current policy until the president’s direction has been received by the secretary of defense and the secretary has issued implementation guidance,' Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford wrote in a letter."

FLOTUS First Trip Solo
5 hours ago
Two of Trump’s Top Advisors Feuding
5 hours ago

"A long-simmering feud between two of President Trump’s top advisers reached a boiling point Thursday, as White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci publicly insinuated that chief of staff Reince Priebus is a leaker."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.