When polls closed on Election Day in November, it became clear that NH voters had chosen a new direction for decision-making in Concord. And that new leadership has different priorities on how best to use state tax dollars.
Voters handed the Republican-dominated State House over to the Democratic Party in the midterm elections, with one major exception—Republican Gov. Chris Sununu. It’s the first time Democrats have held the House of Representatives since 2014, and the Senate since 2010. It’s also the first time in Granite State history that a Republican governor will work alongside a Democratic-controlled legislature.
The Trump Factor
The single most important reason for this dramatic shift in power was President Donald Trump, who affected election outcomes nationwide. Polling at the NH Institute of Politics (NHIOP) three weeks before the midterm elections showed Trump’s favorability rating at just 41 percent in NH. Additionally, 56 percent of those surveyed believed the country was on the wrong track.
These attitudes shaped voter motivation significantly heading into Election Day; of the 70 percent of respondents who said they were more likely to vote in the midterms because of Trump, 59 percent had an unfavorable view of him. Those unhappy with the president likely voted against his party, leading to Democratic majorities in the House of Representatives, Senate, and all-important Executive Council.
The election of the governor of NH has traditionally been more insulated from national voting trends. Sununu went into the election with strong economic accomplishments and consistent poll numbers, including a 62 percent approval rating in the NHIOP October poll. Sununu wasn’t immune from the Trump effect, however, as 11 percent of those surveyed planned to vote against him despite approving of the job he was doing. In what should have been an easy re-election for a popular governor, Sununu held his seat with under 53 percent of the vote.
Reaching Across the Aisle?
Sununu has proved willing to put party aside in order to solve problems, and has reaffirmed his commitment to do so many times since the election. He plans to work with the Democratic majority on issues such as mental health, the opioid crisis, environmental standards, and, possibly, paid family leave. The latter was a central theme in the 2018 campaign message of Democrats and will directly affect the cost of doing business in the state if passed.
The new Speaker of the House Steve Shurtleff and Senate President Donna Soucy will need to be equally open to working with Sununu in order to reach bipartisan solutions over the next two years. Soucy, a long established and respected Manchester Democrat, has a welcoming working attitude that is sure to align with Sununu’s approach to politics. But Soucy will also need to balance the interests of her 14-10 Senate margin, many of whom may be less inclined to give Sununu any legislative victories.
Republicans in the minority will likely revert to a fiscally conservative message and protest loudly when Democrats support increases in spending. From a business perspective, one of the biggest changes in Concord is that Senate President Chuck Morse has turned the gavel over to Sen. Soucy. Morse has been an effective advocate for business and commerce in the state, but will now have to advocate for them in new ways as the Democratic Party has traditionally been more consumer focused.
With a 3-2 Democratic majority in the Executive Council, the governor is much less likely to get positive votes for conservative appointments in state government and the judicial branch. These appointments, which include both voluntary and paid positions, have a wide-ranging effect on the policies of the state.
There will surely be more red veto pens used in the corner office than in the past two years, but even a veto is more than just a signature for the governor. He must work with Republican members of the Legislature to ensure that his vetoes are upheld.
While some partisan battles are to be expected in the years ahead, it’s important to keep in mind that disagreements in the State House between Democrats and Republicans become more amplified than disagreements within parties. In every legislative session there are battles within parties that can be just as divisive as publicized partisan squabbles.
Elected officials of both parties in NH are well intentioned and approachable. Many spend an incredible number of hours and effort, with little notoriety, trying to better the lives of their constituents. But as decision-making takes a new turn in the State House, so will the priorities. While some changes remain hard to predict, it is clear that NH will move in a new direction between now and the next election.
Neil Levesque is executive director of the NH Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Manchester. He may be reached at email@example.com or 603-222-4109.