All politics is local, they say — and they’re wrong. In the new, hyperpartisan era of nationalized, media-driven politics, local candidates for State House and even mayor find themselves being grilled by voters over their views on President Joe Biden and Donald Trump.
Which is why political events in Manchester — highlighted by the upset victory of GOP newcomer Jay Ruais over the Democratic Party’s candidate of choice Kevin Cavanaugh– are at the center of the 2023 winners and losers calculations.
That’s the conclusion of the nearly 300 NHJournal readers who participated in our end-of-year survey and, the editors of NHJournal, and our Granite State Guru insiders.
Obviously, this is all opinions and analysis. If you disagree, feel free to email your thoughts to [email protected]. Better still, subscribe to the free NHJournal newsletter, and you’ll receive our surveys and be included in our conversations in 2024 — a year that is already shaping up to be one heck of a ride in Granite State politics.
BIGGEST WINNER: Manchester Mayor-Elect Jay Ruais
In 2020, the voters of Manchester backed Joe Biden over President Donald Trump by a solid 14-point margin. Sen. Maggie Hassan beat GOP challenger Don Bolduc by 16 points in 2022.
But in November 2023, an unknown Republican with a hard-to-pronounce name wrested the Manchester mayor’s office from the Democrats. He defeated outgoing Mayor Joyce Craig’s handpicked successor, a former state senator and incumbent alderman who was the choice of the state’s Democratic Party establishment.
How did Jay Ruais (“roo-AYY”) beat Kevin Cavanaugh and become the city’s first GOP mayor since 2017?
Campaign operatives on both sides of the aisle told NHJournal Ruais was an exceptionally hard-working candidate who ran a smart campaign focused on the only issues voters said they cared about: Homelessness and crime. They also believe his biography helped, as he talked about issues of opioid addiction and homelessness from the perspective of a person who’s struggled with addiction.
But the Democrats helped, too, nominating an uninspiring candidate with a “stay the course” message at a time when many Manchester voters see a city in crisis.
One of the first stories NHJournal published last January was Craig urging Gov. Chris Sununu to send in the National Guard to deal with the city’s homeless crisis on her watch. The year ended with reports that opioid overdoses and deaths in the Queen City were approaching previous records, and news that New Hampshire suffered the biggest spike in homelessness in the country.
And yet, even in this environment and with a Republican who ran a nearly perfect campaign, Ruais won a narrow 51-49 percent victory. It’s a reminder of just how Democratic the Queen City has become in the era of Trump and his impact on the GOP brand in New Hampshire.
RUNNER UP: Gov. Chris Sununu
If not for the bigger story behind Jay Ruais’s win, NHJournal’s editors would have named outgoing Gov. Chris Sununu the Winner of the Year. (In 2022, he shared the title with U.S. Rep. Chris Pappas.)
A major moment in state politics was the fireworks-free passage of the state’s budget through a closely-divided House where political opponents hate each other and aren’t shy about showing it. And that’s just the Republicans. Sununu was also a winner at the national level, raising his profile by flirting with a 2024 POTUS run before taking on the role of America’s most important political sherpa.
The big gamble was choosing to endorse Gov. Nikki Haley and to do so before the Iowa caucuses. Despite the former South Carolina governor’s Civil War screw-up, Sununu’s bet appears to be paying off. While Haley’s polling uptick began before Sununu’s endorsement, she picked up more speed soon after, and he’ll get credit for boosting her numbers regardless of the final FITN outcome.
If Haley ends up somehow winning the New Hampshire primary, NHJournal may have to come back and revise the “Winner of the Year” standings.
BIGGEST LOSER: The New Hampshire Democratic Party
How do you lose a mayor’s race in a Democratic stronghold like Manchester, with Donald Trump stomping around the state and the national news full of the latest House GOP food fight in Washington, D.C.?
The same way you lose the century-long tradition of the First in the Nation primary, fail to get your federal judge nominee through a Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate, or find yourself embroiled in allegations of being allies with antisemites.
Call in the New Hampshire Democratic Party!
The First-in-the-Nation fiasco alone would be enough to lock down the “Biggest Loser” title, but Granite State Democrats piled on, ensuring their top spot at the bottom of the barrel.
There is too much to be said about the primary faceplant story to recount here (though we’d recommend this, this, and this), but one feature is key: Losing the First in the Nation primary was a team effort. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen is a veteran Washington pol with plenty of seniority. Rep. Annie Kuster heads the New Democrat Coalition in the House. And Ray Buckley’s been licking boots at the DNC for decades.
And yet, not only did Granite State Democrats lose their primary, but they were completely taken by surprise when it happened — an event NHJournal had been warning was all but inevitable for months.
And that was just January.
Now add in the defeat of Shaheen’s nominee for federal judge, former N.H. Attorney General Michael Delaney; the downfall of Democratic Sheriff Mark Brave (more below); the ongoing scandal of alleged child molester (and career criminal) Rep. Stacie Laughton (D-Nashua); stacks of campaign cash from notorious scammer Sam Bankman-Fried; and the “River to the Sea” antisemitism of elected Granite State Democrats highlighted after the October 7 terror attack on Israel.
Not to mention having your frontrunner for governor in 2024 finish up her 2023 by handing the Manchester mayor’s office to a Republican.
Granite State Democrats finishing the year with a self-flagellating effort to reward Joe Biden for killing the primary by mounting a write-in campaign on his behalf is just *chef’s kiss,* as they say in the memes.
BIGGEST N.H. POLITICS STORY OF THE YEAR: New Hampshire Democrats Losing the FITN Primary.
- Jay Ruais Wins Manchester Mayor’s Race
- Gov. Chris Sununu Bows Out of 2024 Governor’s Race.
MOST FASCINATING N.H. POLITICS STORY TO WATCH IN 2023: The Downfall of Dem Sheriff Mark Brave
- NHDems Defending Decision to Mount Write-in Campaign for Biden
- Gov. Chris Sununu’s Flirtation With a POTUS Run
This category is an NHJournal fave. Not every great story is profound, but they can be a lot of fun to cover. And we concur with our readers — the Sheriff Mark Brave story had it all: Public money to pay for out-of-state trysts with beautiful paramours. The state’s first Black sheriff shamelessly using absurd accusations of racism in his defense. All against the backdrop of Brave’s failed performance as a sheriff and previous allegations of low-rent corruption.
And thanks to our fellow members of the press, we also had the fun of seeing which news outlets would bury Brave’s status as an elected Democrat the deepest in their coverage. (Randy Republicans are always ID’d in the first sentence of every news story, if not the headline.) The winner? The Boston Globe in the 14th paragraph.
The 2023 Political Quote of the Year:
“New Hampshire is just one election away from turning into Massachusetts.”
— GOP NHGov candidate Kelly Ayotte.
“We don’t just lose the presidency. We lose everything. We lose the Senate, the House, the governorship. Trump costs us on our ballot.” — Gov. Chris Sununu on Trump as 2024 GOP nominee
“Do you know why children’s results tanked during COVID? Their parents were incompetent teachers. Do your children a favor, let the teachers teach, and shut up. You’re clearly no professional.” — Campton Democrat state Rep. Tommy Hoyt to a constituent supporting the Parents Bill of Rights:
NHJOURNAL EDITORS’ PICKS:
The Granite State Gurus and NHJournal writers and editors unanimously agreed that Sununu’s statement was our QOTY. Both prophecy and insight, Sununu captures the mood of many NHGOP insiders heading into 2024.
We also liked these from Sununu:
- “You bet your ass I am!” — Sununu on endorsing Nikki Haley in GOP POTUS primary.
- “Should we really be surprised that a bunch of morons in Congress are holding things up? Of course not.” — Sununu on U.S. House GOP’s inability to elect a speaker the first time. (January, 2023)
- “Donald Trump’s a few fries short of a Happy Meal.”
For a quote that sums up the standing of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, it’s hard to beat Ray Buckley’s answer when a liberal reporter asked him why the state’s all-Democrat delegation didn’t use its power in a closely divided Congress to attempt to block Biden and the DNC from killing the FITN primary:
- “If any one of the four members of our congressional delegation did something, it would be so out of character that I would probably be the most astonished person on Earth.”
And our nominee for the most unfortunate quote from the most misguided press event goes to Speaker Sherman Packard’s end-of-year “invitation only” presser re: the Rep. Troy Merner affair:
- “We tried to put this to bed, and every time we try and put it to bed, somebody puts a report out or something of that nature and blows the whole thing up again.”
PREDICTION: The winner of the GOP FITN primary on 1/23 will be…
- Donald Trump: 67%
- Nikki Haley: 23%
- Ron DeSantis: 7%
- Chris Christie: 2.5 percent
Some NHJournal reader commentary…
“DJT2024! Get with the program and stop wasting our time and money. We don’t work for you, do you all remember this? So disappointing.”
“Trump will win, but it will be ugly (not bigly).”
“Sorry to see DeSantis doing poorly; he’s my favorite. Sorry Chris Sununu did not stay as governor, too.”
“Until the establishment Republicans start supporting the primary winners, the Republicans will not win consistently. Vote Trump, Ramaswamy in 2024!”
“If Trump is not the Republican nominee in 2024, I’ll jump off the Wolfeboro town docks on Columbus Day next year.”