Perspective: Thoughts On Being a Party Chairman

When Jack Kimball was elected chairman of the NH GOP, I wrote an article wishing him a successful tenure as steward of the party. “All Republicans who care about the party should give the new chairman every chance to succeed,” I said in January. I wrote the piece from the perspective of someone who had not supported Jack’s candidacy but whom, like Jack, won a contested election to become chairman and had to manage divisions within the party during a time when the party was out of power.

Like other former party chairs, I’ve tried to stay out of the discussion about whether Jack should be retained or not. But I do want to offer some perspective on the role of state parties today, and the challenges that will remain even if the Executive Committee votes to make a change on Thursday. The theme is this: Understand the limits of the position.

Republicans are the out of power party in New Hampshire. Democrats have held the governor’s office for 13 of the last 15 years. It’s great to have legislative majorities, but not having the governor’s office affects the strength of a state party a great deal. Factions fester in out of power parties, and being out of power for so long has slowly eroded the party’s strength.

Macro-political trends matter a lot more than who is chairman. The 2006 election – in which Republicans lost some 90 legislative seats and two incumbent congressmen – was dominated by antipathy to the Iraq war and the Bush administration. The party, and scores of good candidates, fell victim to circumstances beyond their ability to control or influence. In 2008, President Obama carried every state between Quebec and South Carolina and our party lost an outstanding U.S. Senator, John E. Sununu. (Despite that, I’m proud that under my tenure, in NH we gained 17 legislative seats in 2008 – the only state in the Northeast to see GOP gains.) Does anyone doubt that Senator Sununu would have been easily re-elected in 2010, had he been up that year instead of 2008? Last year, concerns about the massive growth of government and government spending, crystallized by the bailouts and Obamacare, drove voter behavior. The NH GOP under Gov. Sununu’s leadership maximized the opportunity President Obama’s policies created, and he and the staff deserve accolades for that. The rest of us are mere mortals, and most of us had to deal with less favorable political climates. 2012 is not likely to go as well. Does anyone really think there will still be 19 Republican state senators after the 2012 elections?

New Hampshire is a swing state that is especially sensitive to national trends. 2010 was the fifth consecutive off-year wave election to hit New Hampshire. 1994, 2002, and 2010 were huge Republican years; 1998 and 2006 were huge years for Democrats. Some Republicans who got elected in 2010 have made the same mistake many Democrats made in 2006: They think the election was about them. Voter registration numbers are roughly 30% R, 30% D, and 40% U. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it: Republicans (or Democrats) who think they can win elections when they only appeal to their base are bad at math.

Republican chairs have had high turnover. In the past eleven years, New Hampshire Republicans have had seven different chairs (Steve Duprey, John Dowd, Jayne Millerick, Warren Henderson, Wayne Semprini, me, Governor Sununu, and Jack Kimball). That number could rise to nine in the next couple months if the state party appoints an interim chair and then elects another one. During this same time New Hampshire Democrats have had just two. Kathy Sullivan served four terms (1999 – 2007) and Ray Buckley is currently serving his third term. Sullivan and Buckley presided over both winning cycles and losing cycles. Even after terrible defeats in 2002 and 2010, they were both re-elected. There’s something to be said for continuity.

Campaign finance “reform” has made it harder for parties to raise money. Donors have incentives to give directly to candidates first, independent advocacy groups like Cornerstone or Americans for Prosperity second, and party organizations a distant third if at all. One hundred state parties in fifty states struggle financially these days. A decent congressional campaign now has a bigger budget and a bigger staff than a state party does.

Financial self-sufficiency is harder in a small state. It’s been mostly overlooked by the media, but the NH GOP and the NH Dems have both benefited from subsidies from the national committees measured in hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years – subsidies other states have not received. Part of this is because we’re a swing state and most of our neighbors are not. These subsidies have made party finances look healthier than they really were and allowed them to have larger staffs than they could pay from domestic fundraising alone. RNC subsidies dried up this year as the national committee faces its own financial problems. The fuss over whether the RGA was going to send $100,000 to the NH GOP if Kimball stepped down is really about whether the NH GOP can afford a three person staff without outside help.

The Republican chairmanship is an unpaid, volunteer position. It’s easy to criticize, but would you be able to work full-time as a volunteer? Not only is the chairman not paid, but doing the job costs thousands of dollars in out of pocket expenses for tickets to events, gas, etc.; and tens of thousands of dollars in opportunity cost. My policy when it comes to volunteers, whether it’s Cub Scouts, youth sports, the Old Home Day committee or a political organization is this: Be grateful for volunteers, thank them, and don’t criticize unless you’re willing to trade places. That said, I think the party should amend its bylaws to allow the option of having a paid chairman – perhaps in lieu of an executive director. Many other states do this. This would expand the number and quality of people who could consider serving. It’s worth noting that Ray Buckley is paid, directly or indirectly, for his time on the Democratic side. 

A party is not like the military. The chairman is not like a Commander in Chief who can issue orders and expect everyone to salute and do it. As in any organization made up of unpaid volunteers, a party chairman can only do his or her best to motivate and attempt to persuade. A lot of people seem to think the chairmanship comes with a magic wand. It does not.

A disconnect exists between the angry activist base of the party and reality. Not every Republican will want to hear this. Internal divisions and factions are a natural condition of politics, and Kimball’s chairmanship has fed the Tea Party vs. The Establishment meme, but the gap precedes him and goes way beyond the Tea Party. Here’s an inconvenient truth: In the May, 2011 UNH Granite State Poll, Gov. John Lynch’s job approval rating among registered Republicans was 59-37%. His favorability rating among the same group was 56-31%. Exit polls and basic math suggest that as many as one in three Republicans may have voted for Lynch in 2006 and 2008. 

Who would want to take the job now? Here’s the problem the party may face Friday morning. Party divisions are real. Fundraising is going to continue to be difficult. Governor Lynch has to be favored for re-election, should he seek it. The party is likely to experience a net loss of dozens of legislative seats next year even if it retains majorities. A couple lousy candidates who lose always blame the chairman instead of looking in the mirror. There will always be malcontents and experts with all the answers. The critics outnumber those willing to help. 

A change in leadership won’t make all these challenges disappear.

fergus@ferguscullen.com, August 31, 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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  • The Woodman

    Where is “Fred Bachmann”???????

  • Shawn T. Donahue

    Fergus,

    I wholeheartedly agree with these statements by you: “Republicans are the out of power party in New Hampshire. Democrats have held the governor’s office for 13 of the last 15 years. It’s great to have legislative majorities, but not having the governor’s office affects the strength of a state party a great deal.”

    How many terms has Wayne MacDonald served as Vice-Chairman? Isn’t he also responsible for not being able to elect a Republican Governor in New Hampshire? How about the fund-raising problems? Also, I personally know that Wayne has not kept his word on numerous occasions to help the Coos County Republican Committee! We need to clean house or our party is not accountable to loyal Republican voters, activists or fundraisers, imho. Shawn