ROCHESTER, N.H. — Democrats picked up a seat Tuesday in the near-evenly divided New Hampshire House of Representatives, narrowing the GOP’s majority in the chamber, after voters in Rochester’s Ward 4 went back to the polls to break a tie.
Unofficial runoff results showed Democratic candidate Chuck Grassie coming out on top with 568 votes, beating Republican challenger David Walker’s 451 votes in the special election. In November’s election, the two had tied, with exactly 970 votes each.
Immediately after the tally was announced inside McClelland Elementary School, Walker went up to Grassie to congratulate his long-time friend on a hard-fought race. They shared a smile and patted each other briefly on the back before going their separate ways.
Walker told the Globe that he’s proud of the campaign he ran, which included knocking on every single door in the ward three times.
“We worked our butts off,” he said.
Grassie told the Globe he has worked well with Walker in the past and fully expects to continue doing so in the future. The two leaders, well-known in Rochester, are sure to see each other from time to time, as they live just a half-mile apart on the same street.
Despite the collegial tone struck by both candidates, this special election represented a high-stakes skirmish in the partisan battle for control the House, as the GOP clings to the slimmest of majorities. After the Rochester runoff, Republicans hold 201 seats, while Democrats hold 198 seats, and one other seat sits vacant.
The GOP was bound to hang on to its House majority no matter which way this tie-breaker went. And even if Democrats go on to win a special election in Nashua’s Ward 4 in May, it still won’t be enough to claim a majority. But turnover is both inevitable and unpredictable in the 400-member chamber, so both sides campaigned vigorously ahead of Rochester’s runoff, as Democrats seek to flip the House, perhaps even mid-session.
Leaders of the NH House Democratic Victory Campaign Committee, which boosted Grassie’s candidacy as part of its broader effort to win a Democratic majority, said Democratic-affiliated organizations likely spent about $75,000 on the special election. It’s unclear, meanwhile, how much money Walker and his Republican allies spent on the runoff.
Grassie said his win can help Democrats advance their policy priorities even without an outright majority of seats, especially since each party’s attendance rate on any given day of the legislative session can affect who controls the agenda for the day.
In a statement, House Democratic Leader Representative Matt Wilhelm said Grassie’s win offers a reminder that Granite Staters want their leaders to strengthen public schools, protect reproductive health care rights, and lower property taxes. Republican leaders in the House did not respond Tuesday to the Globe’s request for comment.
Grassie had been the incumbent when he and Walker deadlocked in the general election in November. His term ended in December with the tie unresolved, so he’s been out of office for more than two months. With his win on Tuesday, he said he’s eager to get back into the action not only as a stakeholder but as a lawmaker.
“I need to get back to work for my constituents,” he said.
Even though he doesn’t expect to be sworn in for at least another two weeks, Grassie said he’ll meet Wednesday in Concord with the Democratic caucus and leaders to decide on what position he will fill for the remainder of the term.
Walker, who acknowledged on Tuesday that he appears to have lost, has two days to request a recount of the runoff results, if he chooses. He would have to cover the full cost of that recount, since he lost by more than 3 percent of the vote.
Rochester City Clerk Kelly Walters said about one-third of Ward 4′s registered voters cast a ballot in the special election, a surprisingly strong turnout.
Because of incorrect information provided by a source, this article has been updated to correct the deadline to request a recount for the runoff election.
Steven Porter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @reporterporter.