Democrat Jennifer Daler beat Republican Peter Kucmas yesterday in a special election to fill the NH House seat left vacant when Republican Robert Mead left to serve as House Speaker Bill O’Brien’s chief of staff. Daler, a former state rep, won by a considerable margin of 58 percent to 42 percent, and carried each of the five towns in the district.
While pundits and analysts will surely frame this story in sensational terms like “referendum” and “mandate,” sources close to the race told NH Journal that the real reason for the Republican loss could be summed up in a less exciting word – organization.
Special elections, particularly for a House seat, are generally low-turnout affairs where only the party faithful makes it to the polls; so viewing them as bellwethers of public opinion is flawed thinking. In this race, Daler had several advantages going in. First, she had represented the district before being ousted in 2008, so she had name ID and voter familiarity on her side. Secondly, with Republicans holding veto-proof majorities in both the House and Senate regardless of the outcome of the race, GOP voters may have felt they could afford to be complacent while Democrats are desperate to regain power, one seat at a time.
However, elections of this kind often come down to who has the better organization and can get their voters to the polls. Candidates for a virtually unpaid citizen legislature rely on the state party’s assistance with campaign strategy, paid campaign materials, and volunteer recruitment and deployment. According to reports, the Republican turnout effort was disjointed and flawed from the beginning, endemic of a party that has often seemed to lack direction and focus in recent months. A source within the party told NH Journal that the Kucmas campaign, in conjunction with the NHGOP, was a poorly managed mess from the start. Scant mailings were sent out to voters, phone banks were badly publicized and sparsely attended, calls were not properly targeted to likely Republican voters, and door-to-door campaigning was not utilized effectively. The limited volunteer effort generally had to be organized by local GOP committees or other conservative groups, rather than a centralized program run by the state party.
In typical fashion, as soon as the just shy of 2,500 votes were counted, both sides switched on their spin machines. NHDP Chair Ray Buckley was quick to claim a “massive victory” with “historic numbers” of voters braving bad weather to stand against the Republican agenda. While he can’t be blamed for doing a victory lap, it behooves observers to remember that what seems like a trouncing based on the percentages comes down to just under 400 votes.
NHGOP Chair Jack Kimball attempted to excuse the party’s poor performance, stating, “Unfortunately special elections have a lower voter turnout and I am disappointed with the outcome.” The trouble with that statement is that although the turnout was low compared to a general election, it was higher than is typical for an election of this type, with almost 20% of voters making it to the polls in the rain. So someone was clearly turning out voters; it just wasn’t the GOP. Additionally, its not new information that special elections have traditionally low turnouts, so the Party should have been aware of and planned for that contingency.
The good news for the NHGOP is they have three more chances to get it right, with special elections coming up in Hillsborough Dist. 3, Rockingham Dist. 14, and Strafford Dist. 3 over the next few months. It remains to be seen whether this upset will light a fire under a struggling state party, or become yet another example of this NHGOP’s ineffectiveness.