Cook On Concord: A preliminary scorecard for the ’06 election

Now that the water levels from the mid-May rains and legislative activity in Concord have both receded, attention of politicians and media can focus on upcoming New Hampshire elections.

First-term Gov. John Lynch, five Executive Council positions, 24 state Senate seats, and all 400 positions in the House are on the ballot. In addition, all county officials — including commissioners, registrars of deeds and probate, sheriffs and county attorneys — are contested.

So, what is the presumed political environment in which all of those running find themselves? President Bush is at an all-time low in popularity. The war in Iraq is unpopular. Gas prices are high. There are accusations of ethical lapses in the government. Deficits worry voters. Inflation seems to be looming. Governor Lynch’s popularity ratings seem somewhere in the stratosphere.

Should Republicans be worried? Should Democrats be smug?

It isn’t that easy. First, Republicans have an institutional advantage, with all of the incumbents who are members of their party. Incumbents win more often than not, and in places like the Legislature, where voters often know incumbents personally, those relationships rather than party or issues often take precedence.

Also, given the huge number of seats in the Legislature and the relatively high cost of running for the state Senate ($100,000 or so for a race), it is a real effort for both parties to recruit candidates for all of the seats, so many go uncontested. Therefore, one of the behind-the-scenes efforts for both parties will be to recruit good candidates for all positions, because if the external forces, or “coattails,” of Governor Lynch in his presumed strong race in the fall have an effect, the Democrats will need to have candidates to benefit. Put another way, “You can’t beat something with nothing.” Likewise, the GOP will need to put up candidates in as many races as possible to keep its majority.

Results of legislative races will have an obvious effect on leadership of the Legislature, currently in the hands of House Speaker W. Douglas Scamman Jr., a Republican elected with the help of Democratic votes, and Senate President Ted Gatsas, elected with bipartisan support after a fracture in that body. Whether they can retain their positions will be interesting to see. Already, former Majority Leader Michael Whalley of Alton has announced his desire for Scamman’s position.


What does the landscape look like in mid-May, more than a month prior to the start of the filing period for offices?

Governor Lynch will be unopposed for the Democratic nomination and is the presumed winner of a second term, notwithstanding what will be a well-funded effort by the only apparent Republican candidate, Rep. James Coburn of Windham, who has not yet registered beyond “who?” with voters.

Even a well-known candidate would find Lynch virtually unbeatable.

Lynch enjoys bipartisan support, has been uncontroversial, and has not taken positions that ruffled many feathers, at least as far as voters are concerned. He should have coattails.

Congressmen Bass and Bradley probably will face attorneys Paul Hodes and James Craig, respectively, although both Democrats probably will have primary races. The national Democratic Party thinks Bass is vulnerable and will fund Hodes. Nasty ads will distort Bass’s record. Voters will get tired of it quickly. Hodes is bright, witty and a great performer, on and off the stage. Craig, minority leader in the House, is less flamboyant and will probably be less well funded. Also, the 1st District seat has not been noted as prominently as being in play. Whether voters will express their frustration with the national administration by voting against the incumbents will be interesting to see. The betting is that both Bradley and Bass will survive, but one or both races could be closer than they want.

At least one Executive Council seat will change, now that Ruth Griffin has announced her retirement from office. Sen. Chuck Morse of Salem has already announced and may be the best-known candidate in what will be a contested primary. The GOP will probably retain that seat.

Raymond Burton had some bad publicity during the current term but will probably survive, as will Peter Spaulding. If the GOP puts up a strong candidate against Deborah Pignatelli of Nashua or the Democrats put up a strong contender against Raymond Wieczorek of Manchester, those seats could turn over, but the current bet is neither will and the council will remain 4-1 Republican.

The idea that the Republicans could lose the House in Concord is probably an illusion, but the Senate majority could get quite close.

One thing is certain: What looks clear in May will change significantly as unexpected retirements take place, people decide to leave offices and run for others, and voters surprise pundits. As is true every election season, this one will prove that politics is usually more fun than government — at least to observe.

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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