Thoughts On Being A Party Chairman (updated)

(Note: The following is a revision of a post I wrote in August, 2011, the last time the NH GOP changed chairmen. Most of it still applies so I post this update.)

Congrats (or something…) to Jennifer Horn, who becomes the eighth chairman of the NH GOP in nine years. As someone who served as chairman, won a contested election, and served while the party was out of power, I’d like to offer some perspective on the role of state parties today. The theme is this: Understand the limits of the position, and have realistic expectations about what any chairman can and cannot do under the current, very challenging circumstances.

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.

Understand that Republicans are the out-of-power party in New Hampshire and what that means. With Governor Hassan’s election, Democrats are on their way to holding the governor’s office for 16 out of 18 years. Having temporary partial or full legislative majorities is helpful but not having the governor’s office affects the strength of a state party a great deal. Incumbent governors basically appoint state party chairs and dissent is squelched. Factions fester in out of power parties, and being out of power so long has slowly eroded the party’s strength.

Macro-political trends matter a lot more than who is chairman. The 2006, 2008, and 2012 elections were lousy for Republicans, and the 2010 election was great. About none of that had to do with who was chairman at the time. The 2006 election was driven by antipathy to the Iraq war and the Bush administration and NH Republicans lost 90 seats in the legislature. In 2008, President Obama carried every state between Quebec and South Carolina and, while I’m proud that under my tenure we gained 17 legislative seats in 2008 – the only state in the Northeast to see GOP gains – that was no consolation for losing an outstanding U.S. Senator, John E. Sununu. In 2010, concerns about the massive growth of government and government spending, crystallized by the bailouts and Obamacare, drove voter behavior and Republican won big. Does anyone doubt that Senator Sununu would have been easily re-elected in 2010, had he been up that year instead of 2008? In 2012, the tide ran in the Democrats’ favor (though it was especially bad in NH) and the party lost more than 130 seats in the legislature and both congressional seats again. Yes, in 2010 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. But the GOP won in 49 other states in 2010 in which Gov. Sununu was not chairman. The rest of us are mere mortals, and most of us had to deal with far less favorable political climates. As I wrote in August 2011, “2012 is not likely to go as well. Does anyone really think there will still be 19 Republican state senators after the 2012 elections?” Maybe 2014 will be a rebound year like 2010. Maybe it will be like 2008, an echo of 2006. The key factor is President Obama’s approval rating – not who is at 10 Water Street.

New Hampshire is a swing state that is especially sensitive to national trends. Five of the last six elections – 2002, 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012 – were wave elections in New Hampshire. Two of these benefited Republicans, and three led to Democratic blowouts. Some Republicans who got elected in 2010 made the same mistake many Democrats made in 2006: They thought 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 consistently win elections when they only appeal to their base are bad at math.

Republican chairs have had high turnover and this has weakened the party. In the past nine years, New Hampshire Republicans have had eight different chairs (Jayne Millerick, Warren Henderson, Wayne Semprini, me, Governor Sununu, Jack Kimball, Wayne MacDonald, and now Jennifer Horn). Only three of these have served as much as a single full term. There have been even more Executive Directors. On the Democratic side, Kathy Sullivan served four terms (1999 – 2007) and Ray Buckley (2007-present) is expected to be re-elected to a fourth term soon. 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 a lot to be said for the benefits of 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 or coordinated Victory efforts measured in hundreds of thousands to millions 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. Having lost the presidential election, don’t expect the RNC to be in a position to fund staffers at the NH GOP in the foreseeable future. Being at the bottom of a presidential primary cycle won’t help either.

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.

Special elections are rarely critical. There are two special elections for state reps coming up. Republicans may well lose them both. That’s hardly the end of the world.

A change in leadership won’t make any of these challenges disappear. For Jennifer Horn to succeed, she needs to be given the chance to succeed. That means supporting her as she does what she thinks she has to do and offering to help. If one can’t support her actively, it means giving her the benefit of the doubt, withholding judgment, not criticizing, and doing nothing to undermine her.

fergus@ferguscullen.com, January 26, 2013

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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  • News Flash

    Nice that Cullen can actually have a thought or two.