Curtain Raiser: Tuesday Special Election

STRAFFORD COUNTY – As I’ve stated before, 90 percent of special elections are over on filing day. Usually the district leans strongly to one party, or one candidate is easily more qualified and better known than the other. Entirely too much emphasis is placed on divining “meaning” from special election results when usually none exists. Almost never is a special election a referendum on one party.

Those caveats stated, a look at the special election to be held Tuesday in the Strafford County District 3. It’s a big, eight-member district covering more than 20,000 voters in six towns (Barrington, Farmington, Middleton, Milton, New Durham and Strafford). Honey Puterbaugh of Barrington is the Republican. Bob Perry of Strafford is the Democrat. No one town dominates, though Barrington, Puterbaugh’s home, is the largest. The district is prohibitively large, budget wise, for tactics like direct mail.

It’s a classic swing district that behaves very similarly to statewide trends:

March 2011, voter reg: 29% R, 27% D, and 44% U

2008 presidential:                     Obama 52.6%, McCain 46.5%

(1.3% better than Obama’s statewide average)

2004 presidential:                     Bush and Kerry tied at 1,121 votes each (49.6%)

(Bush lost the state by a point)

2000 presidential:                     Bush 48.0%, Gore 47.1%

(Bush carried the state by a point)

In November 2006, Democrats won all eight seats. In 2008, Republicans gained two but lost the other six. Last November, Republicans swept all eight seats in the district. For perspective, Jim Forsythe, elected to the state senate in 2010, came up short for a seat in the state house from this district in 2008.

So in this case neither party has a strong natural advantage in the district, meaning the quality of the candidates matters more than it might otherwise. The Democrats selected an experienced former state rep in Bob Perry – a strategy that helped them win the special election in the Mont Vernon area in the spring. To the extent that voters have heard much about either candidate, the focus has been on the fact that the Republican candidate, Honey Puterbaugh, is a Free Stater, something Puterbaugh embraced in a letter to the editor that ran in Saturday’s Foster’s. The letter came in response to a Friday editorial in which the paper said, “Foster’s believes there has been a concerted effort on the part of the candidate and the state Republican Party to avoid an open and full discussion of the issue” of Puterbaugh’s affiliation with the Free State movement.

Such issues might not get much notice, or be much of a liability, in a general election with 16 candidates on the ballot in the district and 37 state rep races in the county. But in a one-on-one special election in which it’s been the major issue of the limited campaign, being a card-carrying Free Stater is not a political advantage.

The party that loses the election will be criticized for not doing enough to win it, but I disagree. In terms of return on investment, spending money on special elections is a bad use of limited resources. And given the nearly 3:1 advantage Republicans enjoy in the house, can partisans on both sides agree that the outcome of one special election doesn’t really matter much in the grand scheme of things?

fergus@ferguscullen.com, August 7, 2011

Author: Fergus Cullen

Fergus Cullen is a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party (2007-2008) and an editorial page columnist for the New Hampshire Union Leader.

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