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Democrats spend big on tie-breaker election for N.H. House seat

This high-stakes runoff in Rochester, N.H. won’t change partisan control of the near-evenly divided chamber, but it could help to set the stage for a mid-session flip

Campaign signs on opposite sides of Brock Street in Rochester, N.H., on Feb. 11, 2023, show support for Democratic candidate Chuck Grassie and Republican candidate David Walker ahead of their Feb. 21 runoff election to represent the Rochester Ward 4 in the New Hampshire House of Representatives.Steven Porter/Globe Staff

ROCHESTER, N.H. — Political spending ahead of next week’s runoff election for a New Hampshire House of Representatives seat has been especially high, as campaigners stress the added importance of this tie-breaking vote.

Residents of Rochester’s Ward 4 will head back to the polls on Tuesday to choose again between Democrat Chuck Grassie and Republican David Walker, who each received 970 votes when they faced off in the general election in November 2022. This time, the outcome may be swayed by the past few months of targeted political operations in the city, which have been bolstered by an influx of funds from inside and outside the state.

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As an individual candidate, Grassie had reportedly raised about $26,000 for the special election as of Jan. 31, mostly from small-dollar donors, according to his most recent campaign finance report. Grassie had spent only about $6,000 of those funds, mostly on yard signs, related supplies, printing, stamps, and the like.

“Most money that I have left over at the end, what I plan on doing is to move it down the line to the next group of candidates that are going to be running and also some to our local Democratic candidates to help build our party here in Rochester,” Grassie told the Globe.

Meanwhile, it’s unclear how much money Walker and his Republican allies have funneled into the runoff. They have been raising and spending funds, but they haven’t filed any campaign finance reports for the special election. (Walker filed a report on Feb. 15 that said his campaign-to-date receipts totaled about $2,300 for the general election.)

State law requires candidates who spend more than $1,000 and political committees that receive or spend more than $1,000 to file campaign finance reports with the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s Office. The filing dates for this special election are Feb. 1, Feb. 15, and March 1.

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Walker told the Globe Feb. 13 that his campaign’s financial reports were not yet finished, but he said he has enjoyed a significant fundraising uptick since the general election.

“I’ve gotten a lot more mailers out for the special than I did with the general,” he said, touting his door-to-door campaign strategy.

“People say they’re going to come out and vote, so I’m expecting a pretty good turnout,” he added. “Whoever gets the most turned out of their 970 that they got will win.”

Carlton Cooper, chairman of the Rochester Regional Republican Committee, said a variety of GOP-aligned groups have been raising money and running ads to boost Walker in the special election, so it’s tough to say whether Republican fundraising has been on par with the numbers reported by Democrats.

Democratic State Representative Chuck Grassie, left, and longtime Republican City Council member David Walker, right.Ryan David Brown/The New York Times, M. Scott Brauer/The New York Times

House-flipping goals

Aside from the funds Grassie said he has spent as an individual candidate, campaign finance reports show that Democrats have been spending on this special election through a political committee as well.

The NH House Democratic Victory Campaign Committee (DVCC) had reportedly spent nearly $146,000 by Feb. 15. But that figure includes costs that are not exclusively related to the special election, according to DVCC chair Representative Laura Telerski of Nashua and treasurer Representative Mary Jane Wallner of Concord.

“When expenses are tallied, we expect that Democratic-affiliated organizations will have invested approximately $75,000 in this special election,” Telerski and Wallner told the Globe Feb. 20 in an email.

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The committee has grown a lot in the past three years and now maintains a year-round operation that had six full-time employees for the 2022 general election and now has three full-time employees, Telerski and Wallner said.

“Not all of our staff work exclusively on this one special election, but our attention is focused significantly on it,” they said.

The committee’s major expenditures also include nearly $27,000 for digital services from SBDigital, a Washington-based firm that uses digital advertising to reach voters in hopes of driving turnout. Most of that cost was incurred during the 2022 cycle and billed to the committee after the general election, which is why it was included in the most recent financial reports, Telerski and Wallner said.

In an interview, Telerski said this is the first time that the political committee has kept its operation going after a general election. The group is keeping staffers working during an “off year” because there is a real chance that Democrats could regain the House majority, she said.

“We have built and we will continue to build a professional operation with the sole purpose of flipping the House whenever we have that opportunity,” she added.

The DVCC’s major receipts include more than $40,000 from the Washington-based Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee for New Hampshire, which has spotlighted Grassie as part of its mission to elect Democrats in state houses across the country. Other major DVCC receipts include a combined $20,000 from Kenneth and Jennifer Duda in Menlo Park, California, and $17,500 from the Washington-based PAC for America’s Future.

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Telerski said the financial support from outside the state shows that people are watching and recognizing the importance of the New Hampshire House.

Narrow-margin side effect

University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala said the higher-than-usual spending on this House race likely stems from a couple of factors. First, all the attention that’s usually spread out across 400 contests is instead focused on one special election. Second, the House is almost evenly divided between the parties, so each and every seat carries greater significance.

Republicans hold a 201-197 seat majority in the House, with two vacancies, so even if Democrats win the runoff in Rochester and a special election in Nashua’s Ward 4 in May, that won’t be enough to claim a majority. But turnover is inevitable in the 400-member chamber. During the first half of the 2021-2022 legislative session, eight representatives resigned and four died, leading to five special elections, according to records published by the Office of the House Clerk. If there’s a comparable number of departures this year, then partisan control of the House might shift mid-session.

“It’s a bit of a mystery exactly how many seats might be up for a special election in any given two-year cycle, and you just don’t know where those seats will pop up. Will they be decidedly Republican-tilting or Democratic-tilting? Will they be swing districts?” Scala said. “There’s a lot of unknowns.”

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And all of that uncertainty suggests heavy spending on special elections is likely to continue, Scala said. “It’ll become a fact of life for this particular cycle.”

This article has been updated to clarify the amount raised and spent by the Democratic candidate and the amount spent by his allied political committees as disclosed on their most-recent campaign finance reports. It has also been updated with additional information from the NH House Democratic Victory Campaign Committee.


Steven Porter can be reached at steven.porter@globe.com. Follow him @reporterporter.