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.
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.