For Mitt Romney and other likely presidential contenders, 2011 will be a busy year of campaigning and preparation for the first caucuses and primaries of the nominating process in early 2012. Among the most important of the rituals they face: sucking up to influential Republicans in New Hampshire, home of the first-in-the-nation primary.
That has suddenly become a much more complicated task. New Hampshire has just gone through one of the most remarkable political upheavals of its history, completely reshaping the landscape there.
The result, according to political observers in the state, is a power vacuum in the state's Republican circles, right on the eve of the presidential nomination battle. Or, from the perspective of a Republican presidential wannabe, a slew of total unknowns whose opinion could make or break you.
"There are a whole bunch of new leaders in the state who have never really talked to Romney — let alone [Tim] Pawlenty or the others," says Mike Dennehy, a veteran political consultant in Concord, and former John McCain adviser. "The opinion-leader crowd in New Hampshire is really a clean slate."
Out with the old It's hard to overstate what happened in New Hampshire on election day this past November. If political analysts described the national election results as a Republican tsunami, what happened in the Granite State was of Noah-like proportions.
Both congressional seats flipped from blue to red. The State Senate turned from a 14-10 Democratic advantage to a stunning 19-5 GOP edge. And in the 400-member House of Representatives, Republicans gained a staggering 124 seats — going from a minority to the largest majority the party has ever held. But perhaps the biggest upheaval may lie not in those ballot-box gains, but in two GOP departures. US Senator Judd Gregg chose not to run for re-election this year, and former governor John H. Sununu announced this month that he will step down as state party chairman.
"New Hampshire politics, for most people's memory, has been two dominant political parties," says James Pindell, WMUR-TV political director. "Not Democrat and Republican, but Sununu and Gregg." To be sure, nobody expects those two to fade entirely into the background after three decades each as Granite State kingpins. But neither has the power of office behind their persuasion any more.
Battles royale This convergence of the New Hampshire GOP's sudden surge in power and absence of leadership has set the stage for two epic battles so far, and a third unfolding, between the party establishment and the Tea Party–based conservative outsiders.
The first came in the September US Senate primary, when Gregg's hand-picked successor, Kelly Ayotte, barely squeaked out victory, by fewer than 2000 votes, over outsider choice Ovide LaMontagne. The conservative outsiders prevailed in round two, however: the choice of new Speaker of the House of Representatives. The huge influx of new, primarily conservative members lifted third-term backbencher Bill O'Brien — formerly of Massachusetts, where in the early 1990s he was law partners with Tom Finneran — to a narrow win over long-time leadership member Gene Chandler for the position.
Now, the third battle is shaping up in the race to succeed Sununu as state party chairman. The establishment, including Sununu himself, is backing Cheshire County Republican Chair Juliana Bergeron. The insurgents, including O'Brien, are behind former gubernatorial candidate and Tea Party organizer Jack Kimball.
You can be sure the presidential contenders have a close eye on the outcome. But so far, they've been shy about taking sides.
It's easy to see why. Which do you want to offend, the Sununu machine, or the Tea Party voters?
Two paths A lot of people now expect the 2012 primary field to split into two early races.
New Hampshire Tea Partiers, in the afterglow of their 2010 success, are already looking for a conservative, populist candidate, says Andrew Hemingway, chair of the Republican Liberty Caucus, which endorsed more than 100 of the new Republican House members. "There's already been a shift in attention toward the presidential contest" among those activists, Hemingway says.
The state's establishment Republicans, on the other hand, will be looking for a more mainstream, electable candidate — one they hope will benefit from the large number of independents expected to vote in the Republican primary, with Obama's re-nomination a foregone conclusion.
It's not at all clear, however, which "influencers," if any, hold the key to those two paths.
Neither Kimball nor Bergeron are big enough players to immediately become power brokers, regardless of which of them wins the state party chairmanship in the mid-January vote. Meanwhile, political insiders say that neither Senator-elect Ayotte nor O'Brien seem inclined to assert themselves as kingmakers.
The state party didn't even organize the traditional dinner, usually held a year before the primary, that has served in the past as a showcase for speeches from presidential candidates.
Which means that, for the time being, it looks like an open market, with little centralized control over the endorsements and assistance from several hundred elected Republican lawmakers, organizers, and volunteers. "Ten or 20 years ago, you would have said go after the institutional people," says Charles Arlinghaus, Republican insider and president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy. "Now there's a growing realization that there aren't power brokers per se. Nobody delivers a group, you have to go get the group."
New ballgame Candidates will also likely find themselves seeking to curry favor with any number of newly emerging conservative voices whose influence has yet to be tested — associations like Hemingway's Republican Liberty Caucus; advocacy groups like Cornerstone Policy Research, led by Kevin Smith; and Web sites like RedHampshire or GraniteGrok.
Of course, Pindell, Arlinghaus, and others acknowledge another possibility: that this cycle will reveal that none of New Hampshire's Republican influencers matter at all. The truth could be that New Hampshire's Republicans get their news and opinions from distant sources — primarily Fox News, talk radio, and national Web sites like NewsMax and RedState.
It might not be necessary, this time around, for candidates to bother sucking up to local pols, or traipsing through house parties and farmers' markets in Coos County — as long as you get favorable treatment from Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Erick Erickson.
That new reality might be why, other than Romney and to some extent Pawlenty, none of the 2012 wannabes made any serious effort to help Granite State Republicans in the 2010 midterms — and why a lot of insiders don't think it did Romney and Pawlenty much good. It might in fact be a whole new ballgame in New Hampshire — one in which the new players aren't even part of the game.