Are Establishment Republicans Going to Sit Out 2014?

The New Hampshire Union Leader originally published this column August 30, 2013:

“SYBIL,” THE 1970s bestseller and movie, told the story of a woman diagnosed with 16 supposed different personalities. Sybil had an ordered mind compared to today’s Republican Party, which also suffers from multiple personality disorder as it stumbles about the political wilderness, trying to find a path back to winning elections.

The historical construct — conservatives vs. moderates — no longer applies. Today the Republican Party is a more uniformly conservative party than ever. Establishment types, insiders, and mainstreamers have usually been the dominant personalities, but not today. Those characters have suppressed themselves for the time being, ceding the fore to Tea Partiers, Ron Paul apostles and fringe figures.

Consider the New Hampshire Republicans who are publicly exploring candidacies for major office next year, and the national personalities who are showing up in New Hampshire these days. Few of them can be described as traditional, mainstream Republicans.

On paper, Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen should be facing a competitive race next year in what is supposed to be a swing state. She was barely elected in 2008 in a great year for Democrats, and she was defeated for the same office in 2002 while a sitting governor.

Yet neither of the two Republicans publicly planning campaigns comes from the Republican Party establishment. Former state Sen. Jim Rubens of Etna is brilliant and quirky, intellectually curious and ideologically piebald. It’s hard to identify what his political base might be, especially in a primary. Social conservative activist Karen Testerman of Franklin received ten percent of the primary vote in her 2010 campaign for governor, a fair measure of the breadth of the appeal of her purist social issues platform.

Nor has a traditional Republican emerged as a candidate for governor next year. Two people considering the race, state Rep. George Lambert of Litchfield and state Sen. Andy Sanborn of Bedford, were both Ron Paul supporters. Sanborn’s recent angling about the state Senate presidency vacancy did not endear him to his dozen GOP colleagues, who are now that much less likely to rally behind a Sanborn candidacy for higher office.

Although former state Sen. Gary Lambert of Nashua is scheduled to announce his candidacy for Congress in the 2nd District next week, the congressional races are attracting a dearth of Republican candidates. There is palpable relief among establishment types that former House Speaker Bill O’Brien has abandoned his campaign against Rep. Annie Kuster. Party leaders feared the collateral damage a doomed O’Brien candidacy would cause to the rest of the ticket.

Guests from out of town have included former one-term Congressman Allen West of Florida, who spoke this month in Nashua; freshman Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who headlined a fundraiser for the state party last week in Dublin that was filmed by C-SPAN for Road to the White House; and Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who has planned a trip in October. While each of these figures interests a portion of the GOP base, it is doubtful any of them could get elected in New Hampshire or that their appearances help broaden the party’s appeal beyond base activists.

Add to this the long list of establishment Republicans who have announced they aren’t running for statewide offices next year. Former U.S. Sen. John E. Sununu and Executive Councilor Chris Sununu are out. Former gubernatorial candidates Ovide Lamontagne and Kevin Smith and departing Senate President Peter Bragdon have taken new jobs that preclude runs for high office. State Sen. Chuck Morse’s expected elevation to state Senate president presumably takes him out as well. State Sen. Jeb Bradley of Wolfeboro remains the lone establishment holdout open to statewide office and is in no rush to announce his plans. The longer he waits, the less likely it is that he runs.

The consensus among establishment Republicans is that 2013 isn’t feeling like 2009 — the beginning of Republican wave. Some think the implementation of Obamacare will trigger such a shift, but for now the Republican establishment is deciding to take a collective pass on 2014, preferring to wait for a riper moment. Maybe they will miss an opportunity few saw. Maybe they are showing the discernment that comes from experience, which is why they are called members of the establishment in the first place.

Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at

Author: Fergus Cullen

Fergus Cullen is a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party (2007-2008) and an editorial page columnist for the New Hampshire Union Leader.

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