Cook On Concord: Can Republicans tame the ‘perfect storm’?

While Sens. Obama and Clinton continue to beat each other up in the national campaign, with no clear winner apparent at this writing, Senator McCain has clear sailing, and national polls indicate he is in a tight race with either potential candidate.

Republicans should not be confused by these polls, because no matter what McCain may face, nationally and in New Hampshire, the GOP may be facing a political “perfect storm.”

Why do the Republicans face this?

First, on the national level, in the Senate and House, the GOP faces a formidable task this fall. In the Senate, 23 Republican seats are up for a vote. The Democrats have fewer seats up for re-election, all but one of which appear “safe.” All bets are on the Democrats picking up additional seats, although national forecasters see it being fewer than the 60 needed to have convincing control of the Senate, due to its rules.

On the House side, the Democrats appear poised to add to their majority.

Why is this important? With the presidential race reinforced by House and Senate races, Democrats will have a lot of momentum. Add to this the million or so new Democrats, who have been registered during the hotly contested presidential race between Clinton and Obama and the excitement level generated, along with the on-the-ground organization created, potential is there for a large Democratic vote that will aid local candidates as well as presidential candidates, regardless of who wins the presidential nomination.

What does this mean in New Hampshire?

Sen. John Sununu, still the youngest member of the Senate, defeated then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen in 2002 by a slight margin. This Republican normally would be a strong candidate, having been perceived as diligent, able and bright.

Among the factors that should worry Sununu are Shaheen’s ability to raise substantial amounts of money, although Sununu has the same ability, and both national parties will be focusing on this race as one that could go either way, and therefore will dump huge amounts of cash into the state.

However, Gov. John Lynch seems to be getting a bye in this election, with Republicans not having a candidate who brings huge amounts of money with him or her to finance the race.

Democrats also have a majority in the state Senate and House, with many of those incumbents the presumptive winners of the next election. The Democrats also are more organized and have more cash than the Republicans.

So Sununu faces a potentially difficult top of the ticket, a gubernatorial race for which voters will stay in the Democratic column and Democratic incumbents in the congressional races.

Prescription for ‘08

In the congressional races, Paul Hodes in the 2nd District looks strong against several possible challengers and has raised a lot of money. Carol Shea-Porter, on the other hand, in the 1st District, is generally viewed as an “accidental” congressperson, having benefited from the anti-Bush efforts in the last election.

If she is able to attain re-election either against former Health and Human Services Commissioner John Stephen or former Congressman Jeb Bradley, who are battling for the GOP nomination, that will be a great accomplishment.

If the Republicans have a shot anyplace in the state, it is in the 1st District.

What should the Republicans do about all of this? It is easy for me to say, but running candidates for each office, no matter how lofty or local, would create a lot of “buzz” and enhanced turnout. It is hackneyed to say “you can’t beat something with nothing,” but it is also true, and grassroots organization by local candidates helps the ticket from top to bottom. The well-organized troops and money help, too. McCain at the top of the ticket should minimize damage.

Republicans also have to demonstrate a positive attitude, with real proposals and not be perceived as the anti-everything party. They also have to project the belief that they can win, which should not be too hard in a state that traditionally has seen Republicans win no matter who they are, much as the Democrats achieved in the last election, electing several legislators who have not shown up, are unknown and apparently were just “placeholders” on the ballot.

A daunting task faces the Republicans, perhaps a “perfect storm.” What they do with it will say a lot about the future of New Hampshire politics and whether it will be perceived as a red, blue or purple state 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.