Cook On Concord: The state of the state Republican Party

Among the topics of conversation while waiting for President George W. Bush to address a full house at Manchester’s Center of New Hampshire on Feb. 8, was the future of the New Hampshire Republican Party.

Lately, with the resignation of party Chairman Warren Henderson, much hand wringing has been going on about the sad state of the party and its bleak future.

Those with historic perspective will remember the many times over the years that the Republican Party or the Democratic Party, alternatively, have been declared dead in New Hampshire.

In the distant past, after the split in the Republican Party in 1912 between the “Bull Moose Republicans” and the “Regular Republicans” backing Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, respectively, the party was reportedly split and defunct.

The split in the Republican Party between moderates and conservatives lasted for half a century or more, with the moderates dominating most of the time through the 1960s. In 1972, with the election of Meldrim Thompson as governor, the conservative wing seemed to take over and dominate.

However, during that period of time, several times the fate of the New Hampshire GOP was seen as bleak.

In 1962, after incumbent two-term governor Wesley Powell was defeated in the primary, and Democrat John King was elected governor and second district Congressman Perkins Bass was defeated by Laconia Mayor Thomas McIntyre for the U. S. Senate, the fate of the party was questioned.

Again, in 1964, with the Goldwater loss to Lyndon Johnson, many more Republican officeholders were swept out of office, including Congressman Louis Wyman. Not only locally but nationally the Republican Party was declared finished – only to elect a president four years later.

In the late 1970s, Democrats occupied the governorship (Hugh Gallen), both U.S. Senate seats (Thomas McIntyre and John Durkin), and one of the congressional seats (Norman D’Amours).

So, what are predictions about the bleak state of the Republican Party today based on? Primarily, the lack of a viable candidate to take on popular incumbent Democrat John Lynch. Also, the lack of a “war chest” to fund campaigns and therefore the necessity to locate a candidate who can provide the funding for his or her own gubernatorial run, and the fact that both houses of the Legislature are headed by Republicans who were elected with substantial Democratic support.

Who, it is asked, would want to head this party? Apparently, there are several candidates who want to do so and, indeed, by the time this column is published, someone may have been selected to do so.

One fundamental issue that is going to face the new party chair is whether the Republican Party is to be a “big tent” or whether some sort of “purge” of Republicans who do not support every aspect of the party platform is to take place. Various candidates embrace one view or the other.

If the Republican Party is to seek to purge those officeholders who follow their own consciences and not the party platform, and yet can get elected by the voters, what will that do to party spirit, membership and presence in the Legislature? Indeed, if someone is elected with the philosophy of purging someone who disagrees with certain positions that are presumed to be “Republican,” will that party chair be able to support the House speaker or Senate president if they don’t share those views?

If the one-third of so Republicans in the New Hampshire Legislature who are “moderate” on many issues were to feel as if the party did not want them, where would they go?

Recently, the Republican Party slipped from being the majority party in the state to being the larger of the two political parties in voter registrations, independent voters being the largest group, with Democrats trailing.

Should the Republican leadership want to add or subtract from the number of its registered voters?

Alternately, did the Republican Party do best when Ronald Reagan, with his clear vision, was at the helm or is it better to embrace all sorts of different attitudes? These are the issues facing the party and various answers (or perhaps, partial answers from each view) will have to be picked by the party.

All of this will be interesting to watch. What is certain, however, is that in politics, the presumed fate of a political party or candidate can change in a moment and rumors of the demise of either major political party, whether in New Hampshire or elsewhere, have always been premature.

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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