FRIDAY, DEC. 26. WHAT A YEAR IT WAS. From the midterm election to the ruckus over the New Hampshire Speaker of the House election, there was never a breather for anyone interested in #nhpolitics.
Thinking back, we were considering: Who were the most interesting, the most fascinating, political players of 2014?
Who created the most buzz? Who were the insiders, the activists and even the rank-and-file talking, tweeting and otherwise buzzing about the most?
So we came up with 10 – for the sake of discussion – of the 10 most fascinating New Hampshire political players of 2014.
You’ll notice by the way, they are in alphabetical order. Feel free to submit your rankings (or your own list) in our comments section.
1. Scott Brown. You can’t have a list of fascinating, buzz-generating political figures for New Hampshire in 2014 without him. He was the most talked about player in the state for the entire year. Brown began the buzz back in 2013 with his frequent visits to the state and by not denying speculation that he was about to sell his home in Wrentham, Mass., and move to his vacation home in Rye. Then, when he did announce for the Senate, he was the lightning rod for criticism by primary opponents Jim Rubens and Bob Smith. The daily Brown “buzz” only intensified throughout the summer and into the fall, not only in the local media, but nationally as well. Polls showed the race was tightening; some even had Brown even or slightly ahead of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. On Election Night, the order of the returns was a microcosm of the campaign. Early returns had Shaheen with a large lead, suddenly returns came in from Republican towns, and the gap closed, but in the end, Shaheen widened the gap, winning a close one – but winning.
Still, Brown did much for the NHGOP. His fundraising helped the party win back the New Hampshire House and widen its majority in the state Senate. He diverted about millions in Democratic funds from other races around the country, in effect, his supporters say, helping the GOP win the U.S. Senate majority.
Love or hate the guy, it was fascinating to have him around in 2014. And we have a feeling he’ll be back.
2. Ray Buckley. The New Hampshire Democratic Party chairman somehow continues to keep his troops together year after year – after year. Buckley’s success has Republicans still talking about how to emulate the operation he has put together in Concord. The main question the GOP is asking internally: Should they move to a full-time paid Chairman, like Ray Buckley?
The get-out-the-vote effort was topped only by the relentless tirades from the NHDP office against Scott Brown, Walt Havenstein, Frank Guinta and Marilinda Garcia. Buckley’s party lost a U.S. House seat, the New Hampshire House and the Executive Council, so it wasn’t a great year for the NHDP. But compared to his counterparts around the country, he did well. And so if he wants it – and why shouldn’t he? – Buckley will be rewarded with a fifth term as NHDP chair in March.
3. Dan Innis. The first openly gay Republican to run for high office in New Hampshire ran an interesting race. Innis did not focus on social issues or his sexual orientation. As the former head of the Peter T. Paul School of Business at UNH, Innis he concentrated on a traditional conservative pro-business, small-government, fewer-regulations agenda in his primary campaign against Frank Guinta. But he also talked about being gay when asked, and won the endorsement of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. Innis lost the primary, 50 to 41 percent, but it is expected that he’ll be running for office again, perhaps as soon as 2016.
4. Shawn Jasper, who had tangled with Bill O’Brien and his supporters back when O’Brien was Speaker of the House speaker between 2010 and 2012, tried for weeks to recruit someone else to take on O’Brien after he had won the House GOP caucus. No one would agree, so he did it himself. He said he made no deals with the Democrats, but simply offered himself as an alternative to O’Brien.
The Democrats, according to their leader, Rep. Steve Shurtleff, could have taken what they viewed as the politically expedient approach and allowed the Republicans to elect O’Brien. But they did what Shurtleff said was better for the state and their constituents – and support someone other than O’Brien, even if that someone other has been a long time staunch Republican.
Now Speaker Jasper is in a battle with the O’Brien forces, but has so far remained steady, appointing Republicans to all leadership posts, all committee chairs and vice chairs. But who are Jasper’s caucus members? That’s the fascinating question that remains to be answered.
5. U.S. Rep. Ann Kuster. Why is she fascinating? Because of the ease of her victory in the 2014 midterm election in a year when the country seemed to be turning Republican red, the state seem poised for huge GOP showing and her opponent was heralded as a rising star in the GOP. It was fascinating that Kuster was able to out-debate Marilinda Garcia by avoiding uncomfortable questions about her tax delinquencies and her 95 percent support for President Obama and portray Garcia as a radical right wing zealot. And it was fascinating that Kuster continued to be able to raise vast amounts of campaign cash.
When the final tally was in, she had out-raised Garcia, $3.6 million to $1 million.
6. Bill O’Brien. No list of the most fascinating political players of 2014 would be complete without the former Speaker, who was foiled in his bid for a second term, not only by about 36 Republican and 159 Democratic House members, but also by his own misplaced strategy. O’Brien probably would be Speaker today had he not insisted that the House change its rule and hold an open vote for Speaker. By trying to force House members to stand up an pronounce who they would vote for, rather than have a traditional secret ballot vote, O’Brien gave the impression that he’d be watching, taking names, and perhaps calculating payback against those who opposed him.
Whether that was true or not, that was the perception. When his proposed rule change failed, his meticulously planned return to the Speaker’s post was on thin ice. And soon, the ice gave way.
7. Jim Rubens. How could a list of fascinating Granite State political figures exclude Jim Rubens? Although he lost big to Brown in the GOP Senate primary, Rubens ran his campaign his way. As usual with Rubens, there was no pretense. There was plenty of preparation on the issues, plenty of articulation but no rehearsed one-liners, no sound bites. Maybe that’s part of Jim’s problem – he talks a lot, maybe too much, for too long. But his passion for his issues is always on full throttle. And overall, who can deny that Rubens is simply a fascinating guy?
8. Mike Vlacich. When top operatives for Democratic Senate candidates around the country were falling flat on Nov. 4, Mike Vlacich was probably the happiest man in New Hampshire. Perhaps other than Bill Shaheen, the husband of Jeanne Shaheen, the Democratic senator who bucked the Republican tide and held on against the furious challenge from former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown.
While Brown nearly overcame Shaheen in the final weeks by “nationalizing” the race with a constant drumbeat of Shaheen’s support for President Obama and by hammering on ISIS, Ebola and foreign policy issues, Vlacich stuck unalterably to the script of keeping the race local. He kept the focus on Shaheen’s accomplishments in specific communities on specific projects. He also somehow prompted Shaheen to do the best television ads of her political career – looking as natural and relaxed as possible.
Vlacich’s success earned him national attention, including this piece on the Bloomberg Politics web site.
9. Ryan Williams. No one did more to drive the message of the Republican Party and its candidates in New Hampshire in 2014 than this young adviser to the Brown campaign. Now a vice president at FP1Strategies, Williams was relentless in his contacts with reporters and his attempts to “spin” the New Hampshire and national media on Brown’s behalf. He was behind many anti-Jeanne Shaheen stories that showed up in the mainstream press as well as conservative blogs and websites. And often he did his own opposition research, and did it well.
10. State Sen. Jeff Woodburn. After winning only his second term in the state Senate, the North Country Senator emerged as the compromise candidate for Senate Democratic Leader after the Democratic caucus showed its own rare – for New Hampshire Democrats – display of disagreement. A four-hour closed-door meeting produced deadlock after deadlock between Manchester Sen. Donna Soucy and Laconia Sen. Andrew Hosmer. Woodburn, well-respected in the party as a former chairmnan of the party and aide to former Rep. Dick Swett, was not expecting – nor was he expected — to get the post.
Happy New Year, New Hampshire.
(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.)