NH politics, all shook up

Hassan’s Senate announcement stirs speculation, maneuvering


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When Gov. Margaret Wood Hassan announced her intention to run for the U.S. Senate by posting it on social media, she shook up New Hampshire politics and added additional intrigue for political junkies, already saturated with presidential candidates.

Hassan, having served two terms as governor, seeks to challenge one-term incumbent Kelly Ayotte in the 2016 election. 

Both Hassan and Ayotte are personable, intelligent and competent officeholders, albeit from different parties and with different philosophies as to certain issues. Notwithstanding their positive qualities, the Senate race promises to be nasty, overfunded and undoubtedly will attract millions of dollars of out-of-state funds that will fuel “independent PAC” advertisements that mischaracterize both the character and positions of each.

This is a shame, since, left to their own devices, they could have a rational, principled and civil debate worthy of New Hampshire. 

Hassan’s announcement also creates an open gubernatorial office and the speculation and maneuvering began immediately.

On the Republican side, Executive Councilor Chris Sununu already has announced his intention to run. He was joined, at least in speculation by two state senators, Jeb Bradley and Sharon Carson.

On the Democratic side, Executive Councilor Colin Van Ostern announced his candidacy, meaning the Council meetings between now and the September primary promise to be campaign opportunities for him and Sununu.

Also mentioned has been first-term Portsmouth City Councilor Stephanie Shaheen, assumedly because of her last name rather than because of any experience or apparent accomplishments.

A U.S Senate seat often has been considered the “best job in politics.” This is for a number of reasons. From a campaigning perspective, the term is six years, and has vast advantages over any other job for New Hampshire politicians, all the rest of whom have to run every two years (with the exception of the Nashua mayor’s four-year term).

More important, however, is the fact that election to the Senate elevates a candidate to what was once considered the “greatest deliberative body in the English speaking world.” Whether that is still true is debatable, given the amount of money in politics and the hard positions politicians of both parties seem to take at a time when they should be meeting, conferring and compromising to get the people’s business done.

The seat occupied by Senator Ayotte has a long history in New Hampshire politics. Prior to Ayotte, the seat was held for 18 years by Judd Gregg, as his final office of many, where he performed admirably. Gregg, in turn, succeeded two-term Senator Warren Rudman, whose tenure is perhaps the most notable of recent New Hampshire senators. 

Rudman was preceded by John Durkin, elected in a “two-election election” in 1974 and 1975, when a virtual tie between him and Congressman Louis C. Wyman resulted in recounts and ultimately the election being sent back to New Hampshire by the U.S. Senate for a second vote, which Durkin won handily.

Durkin succeeded Norris Cotton, longtime senator whose tenure went back to the middle of the 20th century. Cotton was a traditional, moderate/conservative Republican of great color and charm. 

The other New Hampshire Senate seat, occupied by Jeanne Shaheen, was occupied by John E. Sununu for one term prior to Shaheen’s election. Before Sununu, Bob Smith served two terms before he was ousted in a primary by Sununu in 2002. Gordon Humphrey served from 1979 to 1990 in that seat after he beat three-term Democratic Senator Thomas J. McIntyre, who was elected in 1962, a watershed year in New Hampshire politics which saw Democrats capturing the governorship and Senate seat in the face of fractures in the Republican party. Before McIntyre, appointed Senator Morris Murphy served after the death of Styles Bridges, long-term Republican Senator who served from 1937 to 1961, and was a member of the Senate’s Republican leadership. 

These names and this history are important.

Ayotte, who has strived to occupy the middle of the political spectrum, gets generally high marks and has attained attention in the Republican party nationally. However, 2016 is a presidential election year, and the increased turnout produced in a presidential year, along with the coattail effect of a candidate who gets traction, if any so appears, make the election potentially a tossup. 

Both parties look at the New Hampshire seat longingly, seeking to fashion a majority one seat at a time, and out-of-state money will be aimed at it with that goal in mind, regardless of the merits of the candidates.

Let us all hope both candidates insist it is a civil contest, based on issues, that elevates the political process. That is a hope, not a prediction. 

Brad Cook, a shareholder in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green, heads its government relations and estate planning groups. 

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