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
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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.”

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