“HOW AM I DOING?” the late New York City Mayor Ed Koch used to say.
Well, let’s take a look at how some of the key players in New Hampshire politics are doing today.
WAS THIS REALLY NECESSARY? That’s the big question underlying the entire “As the NHGOP Turns” soap opera this week.
Bill O’Brien and his supporters had spent two weeks portraying him and his presumptive upcoming term as Speaker of the New Hampshire House as “O’Brien 2.0,” the “kinder, gentler” Bill O’Brien, the O’Brien who would try to work with opponents, including those in his own caucus and, yes, even Democrats such as Gov. Maggie Hassan.
And it seemed to be working well. Gene Chandler, the man O’Brien had narrowly defeated in the Nov. 18 House GOP caucus, had backed him. He had named Chandler as his Speaker Pro Tem, even before the Speaker’s election, as a show of good faith to the anti-O’Brien forces.
But as soon as Shawn Jasper held himself out as an “option” or alternative to O’Brien, all of that went away – or at least that was the appearance. And everything went awry.
Was it panic that prompted the O’Brien forces to try to force a rules change on the House rank-and-file to force an open roll call vote for Speaker, rather than just go with the traditional closed secret ballot?
Panic or not, it was viewed by Republican and Democrats throughout the State House on Wednesday as an overreaction. An unnecessary move – and it was a move that brought back memories, fairly or unfairly, of what many perceived as the “old,” heavy-handed Bill O’Brien.
Again, fairly or unfairly, that was the perception. And there is no question that it cost O’Brien votes. And many think it cost him enough votes to cost him the Speaker’s post.
Everyone we spoke with, O’Brien friends and O’Brien foes, agreed that O’Brien would be the Speaker today had he simply left the rules alone, and had gone along with a secret ballot from the beginning.
But once he made that move, he should have stayed with it. The turning point in the seven-hour Representatives Hall marathon actually came quite early – when O’Brien pulled back on ally David Bates’ bid to have an open roll call vote on the proposed rules change.
At that point, he probably saw that he was pushing it too far, but by then, the damage was done and the election was on its way to being lost.
Even with that mistake, he nearly pulled it off, falling only four votes short on the first ballot, before Jasper got into the race.
But after that first ballot, when nominations were reopened, and Jasper was nominated, and Shurtleff dropped out, the cards began to tumble, the dam had broken – choose your cliché.
As a result, the fight continues, as we reported in our preview on Friday. The GOP has in-fighting on its hand – and the Democrats are loving every second of it.
IN THE SUN. While the NHGOP deals with its current struggles, a group of top New Hampshire Democrats have been in warm and sunny Hollywood, Florida yesterday and today for a series of meetings of the Democratic National Committee executive committee and the Association of State Democratic Chairs.
State Party Chair Ray Buckley is chairman of the ASDC and as a DNC vice chair, is on the executive committee. Also attending the meetings are state Sens. Martha Fuller Clark, who is the NHDP first vice chair, and Donna Soucy, who is the NHDP chief financial officer, DNC member-at-large Joanne Dowdell, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen legal counsel Judy Reardon, and NHDP executive director Sean Doyle and finance director Colin Pio.
A PLUS FOR JENNIFER. One Republican who’s looking good through the Speaker’s fight is NHGOP Chair Jennifer Horn. She has held fast to the principle that the party should support its nominees – a point she pushed repeatedly during the primary election campaign by issuing a “Unity Letter.”
Horn stayed neutral in initial caucus between O’Brien and Gene Chandler, but once O’Brien won that caucus, she has backed him 100 percent, to the point of now promising to enforce the party bylaw that would forbid Jasper from serving on the party executive committee.
She has issued several statements supporting O’Brien, and made it clear each time that she was doing so because he was the nominee of the caucus. And for that she has won praise from conservatives, even some who have been her harshest critics in the past.
And given the very conservative makeup of the Republican State Committee, as a by-product of her support for the nominee O’Brien, she very well could be rewarded handsomely should she, as expected, seek reelection as chair in the late January party election.
A MINUS FOR KELLY. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, on the other hand, has everyone scratching their heads.
Why did she get involved in the Speaker’s race to begin with? Remember, she was the top signatory of a letter backing Chandler over O’Brien prior to the Nov. 18 caucus.
Because she put herself out there, Chandler’s loss was a political loss for her as well.
Notably absent from that letter, of course, were U.S. Rep.-elect Frank Guinta and Senate President Chuck Morse. Both, we understand, were asked — no, urged — to sign the letter. Both declined – choosing to stay far, far away from the internal politics of the New Hampshire House. Smart.
Then, after the Jasper challenge to O’Brien emerged, Ayotte, while publicly having no comment, had Horn tell the caucus privately that she was now backing the “will of the caucus,” which was for O’Brien.
Ayotte’s fate won’t rest on this episode, certainly. Not by any stretch. But what was the upside for her in getting into this?
We’d bet it’s an episode she’d just as soon put behind her and try to forget.
KELLY’S OTHER PROBLEM. Speaking of Ayotte, the first post-midterm poll of a potential 2016 general election matchup between her and Gov. Maggie Hassan has mixed messages for both, but should be viewed as at least a “yellow alert” by the Ayotte camp.
Ayotte led 48.1 to 42.5 percent over the governor (the margin of error is 4.2 percent), but the poll – conducted by the New England College Polling Institute for the New Hampshire Journal – was based on a midterm election sample, and that tends to favor Republicans.
Democrats are expected to turn out in huge numbers in 2016, as they usually do in presidential election years. And add to the mixture the likelihood that Hillary Clinton will be topping the Democratic ticket, and there are potential problems for Ayotte.
It’s early and there are no predictions here. It’s not even certain (though it seems likely) that Hassan will run. But it’s shaping up already as a very close race.
On the down side for Hassan, she is a sitting governor and she received only 42 percent after collecting 53 percent against Walt Havenstein.
And according to the poll, Hassan actually is behind Ayotte among women, albeit closely behind – 46.2 to 44.9 percent. But it indicates that the gender split so prevalent during the midterm election between Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Scott Brown may not be a factor in 2016.
CHRISTIE IN THE CLEAR. So, yes — Chris Christie was essentially cleared of any personal knowledge of the Bridgegate scandal by a Democratic-control legislative panel in New Jersey, although there are reports that there will be indictments of former Christie staffers in connection with the probe to be handed down in January.
Should he remain personally in the clear, it will likely help him as he moves closer to a presidential run, right? Yes, but in New Hampshire, he has more work to do.
Christie has built up a measure of goodwill among establishment Republicans here by helping Havenstein during the campaign for governor.
But Christie, when he returns to the state on his own behalf, will have to answer questions about his record in New Jersey, where the economy is in tough shape. He’ll have to make clear his positions on guns and immigration.
And the fact is, there is still a sizable group of Mitt Romney backers in New Hampshire who are still bitter by his embrace of President Obama prior to the 2012 election, in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.
Some will understand that Christie was doing his job that day. Others simply never will.
And then there’s that attitude thing. How will he hold up at town halls? Will he hold town halls?
Maybe that will change when Christie becomes a candidate. Maybe there will be no more motorcades and maybe the media in the little ol’ Granite State will no longer be kept from him by his staff.
But with the rise of speculation about Jeb Bush and Romney himself moving in the direction of becoming candidates, we can tell you that there is a lot of establishment Republican power being kept very dry in New Hampshire right now.
(John DiStaso is news editor of the New Hampshire Journal and the most experienced political reporter/columnist in New Hampshire. He has been reporting on Granite State politics since 1982. Watch for updates of his Granite Reports column and of course separate stories on NHJournal.com as news breaks. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter: @jdistaso.)