Analysis: Money, message, foes all helped Dems defy the odds

Nov. 11—New Hampshire has a long and storied history of swing voters who split their tickets, picking a Republican for one office and going for a well-liked Democrat just below on the ballot.

But the outcome of Tuesday's midterm election — in which 626,000 voters cast ballots after the parties spent a record $60 million trying to influence them — was extreme, even by Granite State standards.

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu rolled to a fourth term by nearly 16 points, while Democratic U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan punched her second six-year ticket by double digits.

And U.S. Reps. Annie Kuster and Chris Pappas, both Democrats, found new life in easy victories.

"You've got to hand it to Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley. They put together a modern-day coordinated campaign that wasn't visible out on the street, but obviously it reached out and touched more than enough voters to get this done," said Greg Moore, state director of the fiscally conservative Americans for Prosperity.

So what happened?

It starts with the candidates Republican primary voters chose to challenge the incumbents: Senate nominee Don Bolduc and congressional nominees Karoline Leavitt and Bob Burns, three very conservative followers of former President Donald Trump.

Unlike in many GOP-targeted states across this country, Trump did not endorse any of the three before their own impressive primary wins over more moderate candidates.

"The only major GOP candidate who did not model himself on Trump is the only GOP candidate who prospered," said University of New Hampshire politics professor Dante Scala, referring to Sununu.

Indeed, Sununu did not back any of the three during the primaries.

Instead, he urged his fellow Republicans to pick Senate President Chuck Morse over Bolduc and Keene Mayor George Hansel over Burns.

Sununu endorsed the three nominees in the general election campaign, but unlike in 2020, he chose not to produce TV campaign commercials for any of them.

Instead, Sununu repeatedly said each would be an improvement over a Democratic incumbent who was not responsive to struggling families.

In the wake of the losses, Sununu chose not to deride any of the New Hampshire candidates. But he wasted little time laying blame for what happened across the country at Trump's feet.

"Don't ask me. Why don't you ask Oz, and Walker and Lake?" Sununu told Fox News when asked about the Trump-endorsed candidates trailing for Senate in Pennsylvania and Georgia and governor in Arizona.

"By and large, the major candidates he backed had trouble overcoming the brand that tended to scare people."

Soul-searching for GOP

Longtime political strategist/lobbyist Mike Dennehy said the defeats should be sobering for GOP leaders.

"Whatever the polls said, are we really surprised that all three ended up being great primary candidates who couldn't win a general?" asked Dennehy, who backed former Londonderry Town Manager Kevin Smith against Bolduc.

"We've got to do some soul-searching."

Before Election Day, Dennehy wondered why so few potential 2024 presidential hopefuls were here at the end to support Bolduc or Leavitt in what looked to be close races.

The exceptions were former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton who, citing family considerations, since has taken himself out of the 2024 sweepstakes.

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Florida, head of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, did show up for Bolduc after polls showed the race was winnable.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz made a well-timed visit for Leavitt before her big primary win, but in the fall, both Bolduc and Leavitt largely had to rely on supportive tweets or media releases.

After Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's Senate Leadership Fund Super PAC went all in for Morse during the primary, Bolduc said he would not back McConnell for majority leader in the next Congress.

Even after the Senate Leadership Fund was poised to spend $23 million — 10 times what Bolduc had in his own coffers — Bolduc didn't flinch.

"I have said no to that question, and I'm not backing off," he said in mid-October.

"I'm very appreciative of Senator McConnell's support, but that's his job. So to me, that's not anything that we should all be marveled about. We should expect his support and he should do everything within his power to help us win."

Once Leavitt won her primary against Matt Mowers, whom House Speaker-to-be Kevin McCarthy had supported, she said if elected she was a nothing-but-yes vote for McCarthy.

McConnell might have decided to draw the line at sending Senate colleagues or other allies to come to New Hampshire on Bolduc's behalf.

"Say what you want about McConnell, he's a very smart guy," Dennehy said.

Never was going to be 2010

Look at the last time voters elected a governor from one party while choosing an entire slate from the other camp to represent them in Washington.

The year was 2010, in the middle of President Barack Obama's first term, and following the Great Recession, which decimated New Hampshire's real estate economy.

Then-Democratic Gov. John Lynch and the Democrat-led Legislature adopted an ill-fated new tax on limited liability companies and passed significant budget cuts to make ends meet.

After spending $2 million of his own money on the campaign, Lynch hung on to win a fourth term.

The Republicans who voters chose to represent them in D.C. that year had little in common with Bolduc, Leavitt and Burns, none of whom had ever run in a general election before Tuesday.

The 2010 GOP winners were Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, who became U.S. senator, and former Congressmen Charlie Bass and Frank Guinta, who reclaimed seats they had lost two years earlier.

Voters also elected 3-1 Republican majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature and gave Republicans a 5-0 sweep on the Executive Council, which included a 3rd Council District newcomer named Chris Sununu.

"Nobody thought this red wave looked anything like the 2010 tsunami. We also didn't have candidates who had proven they had appeal to swing voters," Moore said.

Abortion strategy success

Some analysts believe voters' support for abortion rights sealed the fates of Bolduc, Leavitt and Burns, who embraced the state's ban on abortions in the third trimester except to save the mother's live or in cases of fetal anomalies.

Only Sununu had said he wanted to exempt cases of rape and incest and to repeal criminal penalties for doctors who performed the procedure.

Meanwhile, abortion rights advocates were hearted by the top-of-ticket results.

"New Hampshire voters made their voices heard and made it clear that New Hampshire won't stand for attacks on our rights and reproductive freedom," said Kayla Montgomery, vice president of public affairs for the Planned Parenthood New Hampshire Action Fund.

"Extreme anti-abortion politicians tried to downplay how important reproductive rights are, but voters loudly rebuked those efforts at the ballot box by supporting candidates who will protect access to safe, legal abortion."

Election observers pointed to suburban communities with long histories of being reliably Republican, including Bedford, Merrimack, Hollis, Milford, Goffstown, Hampton, Rye and Amherst, that went with Hassan, Pappas and Kuster.

Democratic campaign strategists said the congressional Democrats tapped into big blocs of independent or moderate Republican women who opposed a national ban on abortion and didn't believe Bolduc's or Leavitt's vows to vote against them.

Dems framed the issues

But Cornerstone Action, a socially conservative group that played a major role in making the state's limited abortion ban a reality in 2021, said the GOP candidates lost because they "played the ostrich" and let liberal Democrats define the issue.

"Many Granite Staters went to the polls (falsely) believing that all or most abortion in New Hampshire is banned. Even more voted without knowing that the Democrats' unanimous position is also unpopular and extreme," Cornerstone wrote in a commentary on Thursday.

"In contrast, the Democrats' consultants evidently gave their candidates, campaigns and PACs much sounder advice: The side that is allowed to frame the issue will win. The side that silently acquiesces to that framing will lose."

Bolduc and Leavitt's decision during the primary to double down on the claim that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump did not wear well with independents, who did not support the conspiracy theory and almost universally viewed New Hampshire's elections as transparent and fair.

Buckley, the Democratic Party chair, said polls and media pundits underestimated the incumbents.

In 2016, Hassan became only the second woman in American history — after New Hampshire's Jeanne Shaheen — to be elected a U.S. senator after serving as governor.

"The voters know and trust Maggie Hassan to fight for them, and that came through loud and clear Tuesday," Buckley said.

Pappas became the first Democrat in 44 years to win a third straight term in the 1st CD, traditionally a swing district.

For two years, Pappas was branded an endangered species, with the the Republican-led Legislature repeatedly and unsuccessfully trying to redistrict him out of office.

"In the future, anyone should think seriously before trying to take Chris Pappas on," Buckley said.

Then there's Kuster, who rarely receives a 50% favorability rating in any poll, but just keeps on winning.

On Tuesday she became the first Democrat in New Hampshire history to win federal office in six straight elections.

The old political adage may have had some currency in these U.S. Senate and House elections in New Hampshire: "You can't beat somebody with nobody."

klandrigan@unionleader.com