The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New Hampshire’s Democratic wave, explained

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Tuesday's election didn't shift the balance of political power in Washington, but in New Hampshire, it was a very different story.

Democrats made huge gains in the state House, where they won back the majority,  and narrowed the GOP advantage in the state Senate. The party also snatched away both U.S. House seats from Republican hands, and held the governorship.

So, how to explain what happened in the state that experienced a dramatic political upheaval during an election that  elsewhere produced mostly marginal shifts in power at all levels of governance? Part of the answer has to do with the backfiring of state Republicans' focus on social issues, and some of it lies in the fickle nature of the state's electorate in recent years.

Let's start by looking at the state legislature, the country's largest, with 424 members, 400 of whom are in the House. Democrats made huge gains in the state House on Tuesday, winning a 222-178 majority -- nearly identical to the 225-175 majority the party held after the 2008 election. In the 2010 GOP wave election, Republicans seized the majority, winning a commanding 298-102 advantage.

But what the GOP decided to do with that majority appears to have contributed heavily to the significant reduction of its ranks in 2012. Republicans often focused on social issues, spearheading a failed measure to repeal same-sex marriage, tightening abortion restrictions for girls under 18, and pushing to exempt certain religious institutions  from contraceptive insurance coverage requirements. The agenda prompted some hand-wringing, even from within the GOP.

"Let gay marriage and existing abortion laws stand. Tell voters that regardless of your personal beliefs, you accept these issues as settled law and that you will not refight past battles. Do this, and Republican candidates have a chance to have a conversation with the women and young voters they need to persuade in order to win elections," wrote former state Republican Party chairman Fergus Cullen in a New Hampshire Union-Leader op-ed published Friday.

The state has historically been a limited-government, independent-friendly place. But while the sentiment might have helped voters fed up with the economy and the government's handling of it in 2010, it may have backfired when state officials leaned into social issues during the last two years.

"New Hampshire voters are small government voters, but it all depends on what issues we are talking about," said University of New Hampshire political scientist Dante Scala.

"The Republicans won on economic issues and tried to govern on social issues," added Doug Hattaway, a veteran Democratic strategist who knows New Hampshire well.

It probably didn't help Republicans that their statewide standard-bearer -- gubernatorial nominee Ovide Lamontagne -- had espoused well-known socially conservative positions. Democrats pounced, and exit polls show it worked, as women and independents -- those typically least receptive to social conservative views -- boosted Democrat Maggie Hassan to victory over Lamontagne.

In addition to Hassan, other women did very well up and down the ballot, as New Hampshire became the first state to elect an all-woman House and Senate delegation and governor. Lamontagne's loss, and the way Democrats defined him may have had a ripple effect down the ballot, Scala explained. "I do think the governor's race was decisive in that respect," he said.

President Obama's win in New Hampshire also gave Democrats in the state a big boost. In addition to virtually erasing the GOP's 2010 gains in the state House, the party sent Republican U.S. Reps. Frank Guinta and and Charlie Bass packing. Democrats also narrowed the GOP's 19-5 state Senate majority to 13-11.

Given the Granite State's small population (it's in the bottom 10 nationwide) and huge legislative body, politics is decidedly intimate there. Each member of the state House represents only on average about 3,500 people -- fewer constituents than many university student body presidents represent.

Politics is "very connected" to its people in New Hampshire, explained Tim Storey, an elections analyst at the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures. "Because the state is so small, people really do know what is going on in the legislature," he said. Thus, it's not difficult to understand how voters could swing sharply in one direction or another if they are turned off by what they see.

In fact, that's exactly what they've done in the last three elections, moving from heavily favoring Democrats in 2008, to becoming very GOP-friendly in 2010, then back again in 2012.

New Hampshire's recent sharp left and right swings yielded a rare outcome for 2012. With Democrats now controlling the state House and Republicans in the majority in the state Senate, Storey noted that New Hampshire is one of only three states with bicameral state legislatures -- along with Iowa and Kentucky -- where different parties are in the majority in each chamber. At a time when voting patters are growing ever more polarized, New Hampshire is one of the few places where both parties will have a stake in the power structure next year.