Absolutely, say activists who were never involved in politics until 2009, when local tea party groups started springing up around the always fiscally conservative state. They see the 2010 landslide in the Granite State — when the GOP won a U.S. Senate seat, both U.S. House seats, and both chambers of the state legislature — as at least in part a reflection of tea party power.
Not so much, says the state party establishment, who see the tea party as a new name for an old phenomenon.
“Activism is not new in New Hampshire,” said former governor John H. Sununu, who was the chairman of the state party during the last cycle but watched as his handpicked successor for the post was beaten earlier this year by — you guessed it — a candidate with tea party backing.
That Sununu, the one-time chief of staff to former President George H.W. Bush, and his politically connected sons have become the most outspoken critics of the idea of a tea party takeover in New Hampshire amounts to a microcosm of the broader push-pull going on nationally as the GOP seeks to come to terms with its activist wing.
The Sununus have long been the first family of New Hampshire Republican politics.
John H. Sununu spent six years as governor of New Hampshire — from 1982 to 1988 — before being named chief of staff to Bush, a post he held from 1989 to 1992.
His sons have followed in their father’s political footsteps. John E. Sununu spent six years in the U.S. House before winning a Senate seat in 2002; he was defeated for a second term by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) in 2008. Chris Sununu currently serves on the state executive council. Sununu’s others sons are not in elected office but are involved in politics.
And, to a man, the Sununus are largely dismissive of the idea that the tea party has taken hold off the state GOP.
Asked about the relevance of tea party-backed U.S. senators earlier this year, John E. Sununu he told CNN: "This is not only a story that's overblown, but it's 180 degrees from the truth ... This is like the most establishment insider class of senators that you’ve had, I bet, in 35 years.”
Chris Sununu described the tea party movement as a “rebranding” of Republicanism. “I think there’s an internal allure to maybe giving it a different name because it does get people energized,” he said. “It’s going to be useful for boots on the ground, but it’s not going to dictate the message.”
They have a point: many tea party activists in this politically active state have history with a Republican Party in the state that has long opposed the idea of a ever-expanding federal government.
Nor is conservative, populist anger new in New Hampshire. In 1996, conservative firebrand Pat Buchanan won the state’s primary over eventual nominee Bob Dole. There’s a reason that the state’s license plates read “Live Free or Die,” after all.
But there is clearly a strain of thought in tea party circles that people like the Sununus are missing a broader re-shaping of politics in the state.
They point to last year’s Senate primary, when GOP recruit Kelly Ayotte nearly lost to tea party-backed Ovide Lamontagne. Then there was the chairmanship race in January, when tea party candidate Jack Kimball, an outspoken businessman beat the elder Sununu’s preferred candidate, a longtime party volunteer.
“[Former governor Sununu is] doesn’t care. He’s going to do his thing, which is fine. I just don’t think his style really resonates with the tea party at all,” said Andrew Hemingway, chairman of New Hampshire’s Republican Liberty Caucus. “Even when he was chairman, he never came to a tea party event, he never supported the tea party, I don’t think he ever met with them even after multiple requests.”
Other activists say they did not have trouble getting in touch with the former chairman. But even those who say they have a good relationship with the Sununus see the tea party as something distinct from the GOP.
Lamontagne himself, who benefited from tea party support but describes himself as a “mainstream Republican,” says “there are a lot of newcomers to the process, and these are people who had not been involved for a long time.”
With the presidential primaries approaching, Hemingway is trying to organize the tea party movement around one GOP contender. “If we don’t unite around one candidate, we have no influence,” he said.
John H. Sununu has been an outspoken advocate for Mitt Romney in the upcoming 2012 presidential race but has said he remains undecided on an endorsement. Tea party groups have complained that Romney is ignoring them, but polls suggest he has strong support from the movement in New Hampshire — for now. Both sides say they want a conservative who cares about lower taxes and lower spending. Whether they can agree on who that is will show how divided the right is in the Granite State.