Gregg Cabinet nod has state pundits abuzz

The political dominoes would fall from New Hampshire to Washington, D.C. if Senator Judd Gregg accepted a position in President Barack Obama’s cabinet, political observers said.

Gregg, a three-term Republican senior senator and ranking member of budget and appropriations committees, confirmed Friday he’s in the running to lead the commerce department, which deals with economic development, technological advancement, business policy and international trade.

“I am aware that my name is one of those being considered by the White House for Secretary of Commerce, and am honored to be considered, along with others, for the position,” Gregg said in a short statement released Friday. “Beyond that there is nothing more I can say at this time.”

The statement was enough to send politicians, observers and the media into a “what-if” frenzy Friday.

Dean Spiliotes, a political scientist and former director of St. Anselm College’s New Hampshire Institute of Politics, said the statement was telling.

“Typically, if a prospective or possible nominee thinks it is a bad idea, they take themselves out right away,” Spiliotes said. “It’s interesting that he’s still in . . . He could’ve very easily said ‘no’ right off bat, but didn’t.”

If Gregg were offered and accepted the position, it would have “major implications” for state and national politics, said Dante Scala, associate professor political science at UNH.

Gov. John Lynch would be charged with appointing Gregg’s replacement, ushering in the possibility for another Democratic senator. That would mean Democrats would – with the inclusion of Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, whose race is still undecided – number 60 in the Senate, making it filibuster-proof.

“The main pressure will be among the Republican leadership, whether it makes more sense for him to do this,” Spiliotes said.

Then there are the potential long-term effects.

Gregg is the state’s last GOP legislator at the federal level.

“New Hampshire will have lost all of its seniority in the congressional pecking order,” Spiliotes said.

And if he left for the secretary position, it would be a real “hammer blow” to New Hampshire Republicans, who would have to recruit someone to run against Lynch’s pick, presuming that pick was a Democrat.

Even that is up for debate.

“He could appoint another Republican,” Spiliotes said. “That’s typically not what happens, but Lynch isn’t typical in that respect in terms of partisanship.”

Former New Hampshire Republican Committee Chairman Fergus Cullen disagreed.

“There’s no question in my mind Lynch would appoint a Democrat,” Cullen said. “I think it is foolish for any Republican to think otherwise . . . (Lynch) does not have a track record of appointing lots of Republicans to important positions in state government.”

Democrats would expect Lynch to pick a party member to fill Gregg’s seat, Scala said. Naturally, that would result in serious jockeying, he added, because “who wouldn’t want a leg up on the seat for 2010?”

Reps. Paul Hodes and Carol Shea-Porter may be natural considerations, Scala said, but that could create party infighting. And if Lynch selected either of them, the state would have to hold a special election in replacement.

Both Scala and Spiliotes said Gregg would likely be considering the “patriotic element,” which is that it’s an honor to serve when a president asks.

“It’s flattering to be considered, and good politically for Obama and Gregg to have this discussion, but I’m skeptical that it’s actually going to lead to nomination,” Cullen said.

Here’s why: If Gregg was looking for exit strategy from the Senate, he could just retire, Cullen said. If Gregg wanted to serve in the Cabinet, he would have had an opportunity during the Bush administration.

Plus, Cullen added, “Sometimes the qualifications for commerce secretary are that you’re a bit of a political hack. Judd Gregg doesn’t fit that category at all.”

Cullen added, “I like to see Sen. Gregg continue in the Senate, personally.” He declined to comment further, saying, “It’s up to the president and Senate on what to do.”

The Washington Post reported that Gregg is on the short list along with Symantec Corporation chief executive John Thompson. Obama initially tapped New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson for the post, but he backed out due to a probe about a contract in his home state.

New Hampshire Republican Party President John H. Sununu was not responding to press requests for comment about Gregg, and did not reply to an e-mail sent Friday by The Telegraph. Prominent New Hampshire Republican and former Gregg campaign strategist Tom Rath also declined comment.

Former U.S. Senator Warren Rudman of New Hampshire said Gregg is a “great senator” who’d also be a great commerce secretary, but that’s as far as he’d go.

“Nobody knows what’s going on,” Rudman said. “Most speculative stories are worthless . . . It’s typical of the press today. You don’t write news stories. You write gossip columns.”