N.H. GOP offers only a paler shade of blue

For the second election in a row, the New Hampshire Republican Party failed to mount a serious challenge for the office of governor. Joe Kenney did not even get a third of the votes. And for the second election in a row, the voters put the Democrats in charge of both houses of the Legislature. The federal elections were just as bad. Democrats easily won both House races, decisively defeated incumbent Sen. John Sununu, while at the top of the ticket Barack Obama had no trouble beating John McCain in his so-called second home state.

Various explanations are being offered for why New Hampshire went so blue in 2008: Republicans were unfairly blamed for the economic tsunami that capsized the stock market; the electorate is increasingly made up of younger voters and migrants who identify with the Democrat Party; 2008, like 2006, was a referendum on the extremely unpopular President Bush; and gubernatorial candidate Joe Kenney’s impotence freed Governor Lynch to help his fellow Democrats. 

I am sure that all of these things contributed to New Hampshire going blue two elections in a row. But at the state level, I think that one of the reasons that New Hampshire is a blue state is because the state GOP is a blue party. To paraphrase the late Barry Goldwater, on state issues the Republican Party offers an echo, not a choice.

Consider public education, which is probably the primary state issue. There really is no major difference between Governor Lynch’s position and the Republican position. Both sides want a constitutional amendment to allow targeted aid. But targeted aid is hardly a conservative approach.

Rather, it is quintessentially liberal because it is based on the notion that a panel of experts in Concord can and should decide how much every school district should be spending on public education. And it assumes that these experts can and should decide how much of this spending should be paid for with local taxes and how much with state taxes. 

In other words, targeted aid transfers power from parents and taxpayers to politicians and bureaucrats in Concord. In contrast, a conservative approach to improving public education is to force schools to perform by giving parents the ability to choose their children’s school. But when was the last time you heard a Republican gubernatorial candidate really pushing school choice? If my memory serves me correctly, it was in 2002 by the supposedly reactionary Gordon Humphrey.

The cornerstone of the Republican case against Lynch and the Democrats was that the budget they passed in 2006 increased state spending by 17.5 percent, which has caused a large budget deficit. I think there are at least two reasons this argument did not resonate. The first is that the Republicans did not point to any bridges-to-nowhere examples of spending, which is what raises the voters’ ire. Second, Lynch and the Democrats did not propose fixing the deficit with an income or sales tax, which presumably remain anathemas to New Hampshire voters.

The state GOP also failed to propose any significant changes in state government. They did not propose eliminating, or even consolidating, any of the alphabet soup of state agencies, boards and commissions. Nor did they propose eliminating or reforming any programs. 

And when was the last time you heard a Republican running for state office talk about cutting taxes? Incredibly, it has been the Democrats who have run to the right of Republicans on taxes. In 2004, Lynch pledged to eliminate the state property tax; in 2006, he distorted Republican Jim Coburn’s words to make it appear that Coburn wanted to increase the gasoline tax, while in 2008 he portrayed Joe Kenney as a supporter of the state property tax. 

When the state GOP has hit the Democrats for raising taxes, it has been for raising cigarette taxes. That is not particularly effective way to win over new voters, because most voters neither smoke nor plan to become smokers. Meanwhile, Republicans appear content to leave the interest and dividends tax in place, which punishes savings and investment.

The case that Republicans made to the voters in 2008 was that they can run big government more frugally than the Democrats. That makes them merely a paler shade of blue. What the state GOP needs to do is to hold a Council of Trent and decide whether it wants to continue the same-but-less approach or offer a true conservative alternative of less government and lower taxes.

Ed Mosca is an attorney who lives in Manchester.

Categories: Opinion