For most New Hampshire families, COVID-19 is a crisis. For the New Hampshire GOP, it’s turning into a fiasco. Watching Speaker Dick Hinch and the House caucus handle — or rather, mishandle — the politics of the pandemic, one wonders if they understand the party’s fundamental challenge in 2021 and beyond.
Republicans don’t have a “base” problem. They have a Bedford one.
Gov. Chris Sununu knows it. What some political pundits describe as “triangulation” is really just Sununu’s natural political instinct to go where the voters are. In the Trump era, Republicans sometimes sound like they’ve forgotten that getting a majority of the votes is a good thing. Yes, America has an Electoral College and yes, we have a Republic, not a democracy, etc. etc.
But politics in its simplest terms is “getting more votes than the other guy.”
And those votes aren’t on the side of refusing masks, catching COVID and not telling anyone until the day before gathering in a group of several hundred.
“It was badly managed from the beginning,” Sununu said of the NHGOP House caucus’s COVID track record, and most Granite Staters agree. They hear that the GOP House members headed off to a ski lodge to hang around an open buffet — without masks — and they are flabbergasted. And then they find out that some of the attendees were infected with COVID and the GOP leadership kept the news under wraps, and that made the Republicans look utterly reckless.
“As things moved forward, communications should have been happening between both parties and both bodies,” Sununu said, “I don’t know how that [communication] transpired, but my understanding is it wasn’t good.”
No, it wasn’t.
For some Republicans, this sounds like surrender. Why even acknowledge the Democrats’ complaints? Throw off the mask! Own the libs! Attack!
This was the spirit behind the move to break tradition and push through the rules allowing guns on the House floor and ending mandatory sexual-harassment training on Organization Day. If the Democrats are dumb enough to stay home, then we’ll just pass our rules while they’re gone, amirite?
If your goal is to defeat the Democrats, that’s fine. You’ve got the votes for the moment. But in the long term, the NHGOP doesn’t need more “defeats.” It needs more “wins.” It needs to win back college-educated, suburban voters who once were a pillar of the party but who have been trending more and more away from the GOP.
And “guts, guns and girl- gropin'” isn’t a winning message for these voters. Worse, this seemingly cavalier approach to COVID-19 is happening at the same time cases are soaring. New Hampshire suffered seven deaths on Thursday. The U.S. recorded its highest single-day death toll yet: 2,804 fatalities and more than 100,000 hospitalizations.
Suburban moms in Bedford watch news stories of Republicans refusing masks and catching COVID, and they don’t see a political organization they want to be a part of. This behavior makes it that much easier for suburbanites who’ve been voting Democrat to start actually thinking of themselves as Democrats.
When that happens, the GOP is really in trouble.
Not that they aren’t already. For all the chest-thumping about taking back the Legislature, Democrats actually won 49.7 percent of votes cast for state Senate. GOP-friendly districts turned that narrow popular vote margin into a solid 14-10 majority. The story is similar in the House.
Meanwhile, look at the trend in Bedford. Ten years ago, Republican Frank Guinta carried Bedford with 66 percent of the vote. In 2016, he got just under 50 percent of the vote. In 2020, Republican Matt Mowers eked out a win in Bedford by just 164 votes.
In 2016, Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte won Bedford by 21 points. This year, Democrat Sen. Jeanne Shaheen carried it by 8 points — a 29 percent swing. Joe Biden won it, too.
Obviously, these races aren’t entirely comparable. Nobody believes Ayotte vs. Hassan is the same as Shaheen vs. Messner. And Trump vs. Biden is obviously different from Obama vs. Romney. But the trend is clear and undeniable.