After 132 years of Republican domination, New Hampshire has quietly slipped into generally Democratic control over the last six years.
At least one observer thinks this may have a significant impact on the state’s bonding levels.
From 2008 to 2010 the state issued an elevated level of general obligation and revenue bonds, said Charlie Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center in Concord, N.H, a think tank with a limited government philosophy. During those years the state issued an average of $370 million per year of those bonds each year, according to Thomson Reuters data. This compares to an average of $125.5 million per year in the years 1987-2007.
The period between 2007 and 2010 was the first time in over 130 years that the Democrats held power in all three bodies of state government.
The bonding increase was partly due to inflation, Arlinghaus said. It may also have been partly been a response to the economic downturn of the period.
It remains to be seen whether the recently elected Democratic governor and legislature return to the earlier high bonding levels, he said.
For many years in the 19th and early 20th centuries New England was generally Republican Party territory. Some historians say the Republican Party was founded in Exeter, New Hampshire in 1853 at a secret abolitionist meeting. New Hampshire neighbors Vermont and Maine were the only two states to vote against Democrat presidential incumbent Franklin Roosevelt in 1936.
However, the Democratic Party has come to dominate New England over the last 80 years. Rhode Island became Democratic in the 1930s, Massachusetts in the 1950s, Connecticut in the 1970s, Vermont in the 1980s and Maine in the 1990s, according to University of New Hampshire professor Andrew Smith.
Yet New Hampshire remained a solidly Republican state at least until the 1990s.
For example, in 1976 Democrat Jimmy Carter narrowly beat Republican Gerald Ford for the White House by two percentage points of the popular vote. But New Hampshire voted by 11 percentage points for Ford.
Things started to change in the 1990s. In 1990 the Republican Party had a 10 percentage point lead over Democrats in state party registration. By 1992 that had shrunk to a 6 percentage point lead. In that year the state voted for Bill Clinton over incumbent Republican George H.W. Bush. The state had voted for a Democrat only once before since the Franklin Roosevelt era, in 1964 for Lyndon Johnson.
Since then, New Hampshire has voted for the Democratic candidate in every presidential election except 2000.
Amid those national shifts, state government remained largely Republican. From 1874 to 2006, Democrats held the Senate only twice, in 1912 and 1998. They held the state House of Representatives only in 1922. The decisive election came in November 2006, when voters elected the Democrats to be the majority of both the House and Senate for the first time since 1874.
The voters also started electing Democratic governors. Democrats have held the office from 1997 to 2002 and 2005 to the present.
Republicans still hold a 2.6 percentage point lead in party registration, as of November 2012, the most recently available data. The proportion of registered voters not declaring a party registration has increased from about 32% in 1990 to about 42% in 2012.
Most observers date the big change in party politics to about 2000, said Dean Spiliotes, civic scholar at the Southern New Hampshire University. It was around then that Democratic registration started to outpace GOP registration, he said.
When potential voters are questioned about their party identification, Democrats now have a 3 to 4 percentage point advantage over the Republicans, Smith said.
Voting for national offices has also veered Democrat. The state is currently represented by a Republican senator, a Democratic senator and two Democratic representatives in Washington.
New Hampshire stands apart as the only state without both an income tax and a state or local sales tax. A substantial tax on businesses is the state government’s biggest source of income, according to Smith.
With limited revenue to work with, Republican governments have been quite frugal.
When the Democrats gained control of the state legislature, they chose to increase spending on certain programs that had received limited funding under the Republicans. Total spending increased significantly, Smith said. Ultimately, revenues were not as good as projected, which led to significant spending deficits from 2007 to 2010.
Some voters became upset with this direction, he said. In November 2010 voters responded by electing a strongly Republican legislature. Once in power the Republicans made major cuts to spending.
However, the GOP focused on social issues while they were in power, which may have put them out of sync with New Hampshire voters. Generally, the state’s voters are moderate to liberal on social issues, according to University of New Hampshire associate professor Dante Scala.
“The Republicans won on economic issues and tried to govern on social issues,” Democratic strategist Doug Hattaway told the Washington Post.
So in November 2012 New Hampshire voters reversed course again and voted the current group of lawmakers in. There are now 221 Democrats and 179 Republicans in the House of Representatives. In the Senate there are 11 Democrats and 13 Republicans. Both groups of legislators, as well as the governor, are elected every two years. Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan replaced Democrat John Lynch on Jan. 3.
Observers offered several explanations for the rise of the Democratic Party in New Hampshire.
Several pointed out that the New Hampshire electorate is quite different from 30 years ago. The state’s population has increased by 19% since 1990.
Two-thirds of all adults over 25 were born in another state, said Ken Johnson, sociology professor at University of New Hampshire — one of the highest proportions of all 50 states.
That has overwhelmingly been due to migration to the state from other Northeastern states, Smith said.
The biggest source of migrants has been Massachusetts, Johnson notes. The migrants have generally been Republican, according to Smith, who added that immigrants from other states and abroad have generally been Democrats. There have been more of them than those from Massachusetts in recent decades.
Many of the migrants work in high tech, research and the universities,. The Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon is the largest medical center between Boston and Montreal, Spiliotes noted. Many researchers there come from out of state.
The higher educated migrants tend to lean Democrat, Smith said.
The migration stream may have slowed recently, Smith said. While the state’s unemployment rate is below the national rate, state gross domestic product growth is also below most other states, he explained.
The state has also shifted Democratic as younger people have aged and become eligible to vote, Smith said.
The younger generation has been more likely to vote for Democrats, Spiliotes said. Many of the older people who voted for the Republicans have either died or gone to Florida, according to Smith.
Nationally, there was a “strategy since the 1970s when the Republicans went South, went after the core Democratic voters and began to be very closely allied with the conservative movement, which wasn’t rooted in the Northeast at all,” Boston University professor Julian Zelizer told the New York Times.
Scala agreed with this, saying that the current national Republican Party is dominated by Southerners and social conservatives. New Hampshire’s voters are unhappy about this development, he said.
Arlinghaus saw the state’s political history differently than the other analysts. While the state legislature was Republican-dominated in the 1960s through early ’80s, Democrats held the governorship for nine of those years and generally had some of the state’s delegation in Washington. This was followed by 14 years of Republican domination.
The election of Democrat Jeanne Shaheen to be governor in November 1996 was important, Arlinghaus said. While Democratic candidates in their campaigns earlier declined to promise to not introduce a sales or income tax, Shaheen did so in her campaign. Ever since, Democrats have followed her lead and that has removed a big reason that voters had voted for the Republicans, Arlinghaus said.
Shaheen also got the state Democratic Party organization to be more powerful and organized, he said.