Cook On Concord: 2006 was indeed a watershed election year

Sam Ervin, the late North Carolina senator who served as chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee, used to quote scripture. One notable example was his looking at witnesses and saying, “Verily, verily I say unto you, whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” On Nov. 7, President George W. Bush reaped what he had sown, and Republican candidates all over the country were the victims.

In New Hampshire, an historic election was characterized variously as a hurricane, tsunami, or earthquake. Some commentators also wondered if it was going to usher in an “original amateur hour.”

As has been recounted repeatedly, Democrats not only retained the governorship, with John Lynch winning by a 3-1 margin, newly elected Executive Councilors Beverly Hollingworth, replacing Ruth Griffin, and John Shea, who defeated Peter Spaulding in a notable stealth upset, gave Democrats the majority of the council. This will make Lynch’s appointments easier to confirm and was almost universally unexpected.

After the election of 14 Democrats, the 24-member Senate will have a change of leadership and a change in the balance of power. Likewise, and most historically, in the New Hampshire House, Democrats picked up a huge number of seats to control that body for the first time since the 1800s.

No Democratic House members have ever been in the majority, none has ever served as a committee chair, speaker, deputy speaker or majority leader. Hence, there is an expressed concern that once the House Democrats organize, it will be a real learning experience, and the majority will be difficult to control.

Whether Democrats will have the same experience Republicans have had over the years, meaning that the majority splits up into several factions (in this case, liberal, moderate and moderate-conservative) or acts as a bloc, will be interesting to watch. Over the years, Republicans have had a tendency to go their own way and form various coalitions within the majority. The early betting is the Democrats will be aware of this and will proceed carefully.

Perhaps the most telling expression of the national dissatisfaction with President Bush, his policies and the war in Iraq came in the defeat of Congressman Charles Bass by Concord attorney Paul Hodes in the 2nd District and, even more surprising, the defeat of 1st District Congressman Jeb Bradley by Carol Shea-Porter, a relatively unknown, unfunded candidate.

Many GOP observers thought this to be the most unfortunate part of the election, Bass and Bradley having a good deal of experience and having made many contributions to the state while gaining seniority in Washington. However, the national tide was such that they were unable to survive it, as both U. S. House and Senate saw the GOP lose to Democratic control.

There are several reasons for the uniform election tide for the Democrats. The aforementioned dissatisfaction with the president is the main factor. Added to that were the effects of straight-ticket voting. Those who walked into the ballot box, checked the box for straight Democratic ticket and left, as the firmest expression of their dissatisfaction for Bush, also swept away Republican senators, representatives, local officials and, in one case at least, an Executive Council member. Democrats have tried to do away with the ability to vote a straight ticket, which has always been seen as benefiting Republicans. This year they benefited from it. Whether Republicans will try to have it eliminated in the future is an open question at this point.

There also was no strong personality on the Republican ballot statewide to serve as a reason for voters to avoid a straight ticket and return at least in some instances to the Republican column. The weak Republican gubernatorial candidate, Jim Coburn, while running a credible race, gave very few voters a reason to vote Republican.

A number of prominent Republican personalities are gone from the scene because of this election. Bass, Bradley, Spaulding as well as prominent representatives seeking re-election, such as “Stretch” Kennedy of Hopkinton, Tony Soltani of Epsom, Crow Dickinson of Conway and several seeking re-election after an absence from the House were not returned to office. Well known and respected GOP state senators Carl Johnson, Thomas Eaton, André Martel and Robert Flanders all were defeated.

What of the future? Governor Lynch and the Democrats have to produce a program and party discipline, and they will have to be careful to avoid “payback” for perceived past Republican majority treatment, if they are to get things done in a “bipartisan spirit.”

For the Republicans, predictions of the death of a political party are usually premature, and looking to 2008, a presidential year, the fact that there will be no incumbent president running, the candidates will be fresh and have their own circumstances, and there is a question as to whether Governor Lynch will seek another term — all should give Republicans some hope.

Democrats have made substantial gains and raised the question of whether New Hampshire is a predictable Republican state or not (the answer is it appears not to be one). And they will try to build on their remarkable gains with a strong program, good record and accomplishments for which the voters will want to reward them in the future.

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

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