Democrats are on a winning streak with four special election victories so far this year in the New Hampshire House. If they keep it up, they could soon surpass Republicans in the 400-seat chamber.
It’s a tantalizing prospect for Democrats both locally and nationally.
“When we look at the larger map across the country of opportunities to create Democratic majorities in legislatures, New Hampshire is absolutely up there,” said Heather Williams, interim president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which has contributed financially to local efforts to keep the party’s streak going.
“Our giving strategy of course is incumbent on opportunity, and New Hampshire is a place that is really ripe to challenge a Republican trifecta,” Williams added.
Democrats need to win all three special elections on the horizon to claim an outright lead in the New Hampshire House. They are favored to prevail Nov. 7 in Nashua’s Ward 4, where Democrat Paige Beauchemin is up against Republican David M. Narkunas. But their odds are less certain in subsequent special elections in two Coos County districts — especially since those votes could coincide with the state’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary, giving the Republicans a potential boost.
While more than a dozen notable candidates have challenged former president Donald J. Trump for the GOP nomination, only a couple have taken on President Biden, and the one who was polling in a distant second for the Democratic nomination, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., announced Monday he is now running as an independent instead.
Biden, meanwhile, has kept his distance from New Hampshire. He urged the Democratic National Committee to push South Carolina to the front of the party’s 2024 presidential nominating calendar, creating a scheduling impasse that’s still unresolved. So he could skip New Hampshire’s early contest altogether.
That leaves author Marianne Williamson as the Democratic candidate with the most active personal presence in the state. (Biden supporters have said they will cast write-in votes for Biden if his name isn’t printed on their ballot.)
Without much of a contest on the Democratic side, stronger interest in the Republican presidential primary — where there is an active competition, at least for second place — could drive GOP turnout for the Coos County special elections as well. That said, the votes are not yet guaranteed to happen at the same time, for a couple of reasons.
First, the presidential primary hasn’t officially been scheduled. It will most likely take place Jan. 23, but Secretary of State David M. Scanlan won’t announce the date until he’s confident it will occur at least seven days ahead of any similar contest, as required by state law.
Second, the special elections in Coos County will happen on Jan. 23 only if there are contested primaries. If neither party puts forward more than one candidate in a given race, then the district will forgo its Dec. 5 primary and hold a general election on that date instead.
That means anyone who wants the state and federal races to coincide has reason to hope for contested primaries. Governor Chris Sununu, a Republican, acknowledged as much during an Executive Council meeting last week.
Representative Ross Berry, a Republican from Manchester who serves as vice chairman of the Committee to Elect House Republicans, said he generally prefers uncontested GOP primaries so the party can unite behind a single candidate. But driving turnout is helpful too, he said.
“Anytime there’s more people voting, it’s better for Republicans,” he said. “Republicans win high-turnout elections.”
Even so, a contested primary comes with risks.
Steve Marchand, a former Democratic gubernatorial candidate who tracks state representative races with his Move the Goalposts PAC, said spending can be “absurdly high” on a per-voter basis during state legislative primaries given the “stunningly low” voter turnout. That’s to say nothing of the potential for bruised feelings among co-partisans, he noted.
What’s more, primary voters don’t always pick the strongest candidate. Marchand said the recent special election in Northwood and Nottingham is a prime example of GOP primary voters going with the weaker of their two options.
“So when you have a primary and you get too cute with it, sometimes you end up with a result that is not your best general election setup,” he said. “There could be a lot of variables in this one.”
James Guzofski of Northwood, who won the GOP primary on Aug. 1 against Jessica Sternberg, lost the Sept. 19 general election to Democrat Hal Rafter of Nottingham. Democrats had called attention to things Guzofski, a pentecostal pastor, had preached about the 2020 election, LGBTQ people, the Black Lives Matter movement, and abortion.
In a statement the day after Guzofski’s defeat, Majority Leader Jason Osborne said Republicans fell short despite achieving their door-knocking goals and making historic investments in print, TV, and digital advertising.
“We will take the lessons learned from this race, prepare for the forthcoming special elections, and look forward to more opportunities to talk to Granite Staters about their vision for the future,” Osborne said.
Looking ahead, Berry acknowledged the GOP’s long odds in Nashua’s Ward 4, which he called one of the state’s “bluest” legislative districts, but he was more optimistic about the two subsequent contests in Coos County District 1 and District 6.
“They’re both winnable, for sure,” he said.
Berry said recent trends suggest Republicans are well-positioned to compete in District 1, which covers Dalton, Lancaster, Northumberland, and Stratford. Their climb may be a bit steeper, he said, in District 6, which covers Randolph, Gorham, Shelburne, Success, and several other southern Coos County communities. But the committee will invest equally in both, he added.
Marchand similarly said District 1 will be of particular interest to both parties.
Meanwhile, the NH House Democratic Victory Campaign Committee is continuing its efforts to recruit, train, and support Democratic candidates. The committee’s executive director, Jonathan F. George, said the DLCC’s financial backing helps to cover staffing costs during an off year as the NH DVCC aims “to build an enduring majority in the New Hampshire House.”
The filing period for the Coos County special elections opened Monday and runs until Friday, so the public will know by this weekend whether the primaries will be contested. Only one candidate, Edith Tucker, a Democrat from Randolph, had filed for either race as of Tuesday afternoon, according to the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s Office.
There are currently 198 Republicans, 196 Democrats, and three independents serving in the House.