Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
What is going on with the New Hampshire GOP?
That question comes on the heels of a major blow to the entrenched Republican pillars of the state. On Saturday, political newcomer Jack Kimball was elected chairman of the New Hampshire GOP. Kimball, a Tea Party activist, beat out Juliana Bergeron, who enjoyed the support of many of New Hampshire's Republican mainstays, including outgoing chairman John Sununu.
A Tea Party victory within the Republican ranks sends a cloudy message about the party's future. In particular, it adds new complexity to the 2012 presidential race—the first contest for the presidency with Tea in the mix—since all eyes will be on New Hampshire and its first-in-the-nation primary next January.
In tandem with Kimball's election was the release of two polls showing former Massachusetts governor and 2008 presidential candidate Mitt Romney topping the list of GOP contenders. A Rasmussen Reports national survey shows Romney carrying 24 percent of Likely Republican Primary Voters, leading a crowd that includes Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and other politicians who have yet to declare their candidacy. In New Hampshire, a straw poll of state Republican party committee members last weekend has Romney in the lead with 35 percent supporting.
Leaving aside the difficulties of predicting which non-candidate will win a primary election that's still a year away, Romney's momentum (if you can call it that) coupled with Kimball's ascendancy could make for an interesting dichotomy to play out on the national stage. After all, Romney is as close to an establishment Republican as you're likely to find, and probably none too pleasing for the man at the GOP's wheel in New Hampshire.
But the 2012 GOP pick is as uncertain as the Tea Party's influence in the process. As state chairman of the party, Kimball is barred from throwing his weight behind any candidate in the primary, but his support for the Tea Party is loud and clear. Plan to watch how Kimball balances the modesties of his position with his own political leanings.
There are some signs that New Hampshire may be leaning with him, however. It was the lone red state of New England in last year's midterm elections, continuing a long tradition of sending a Republicans to Washington. There have been only 5 Democratic Senators from the state since the Civil War. Republican Kelly Ayotte easily won election to the U.S. Senate in November with support from Sarah Palin, who endorsed Ayotte over her Tea Party opponent in the GOP primary. Though the movement stumbled in that race, the power of Palin bodes well for the success of stronger Tea candidates in the future. Meanwhile, Tea Party Republican Frank Guinta took out incumbent Democratic Representative Carol Shea-Porter. Republican Charlie Bass narrowly won his Congressional election for an open seat, and while he's not a card-carrying member of the Tea Party, he has gone on record about his affection for the organization's faithful, saying, "I love 'em."
Taking into account these election results, and now Kimball's, New Hampshire is emerging as a strong foothold for the Tea Party, one made all the more valuable by being the first stop for a would-be president. Polling results certainly don't mean much now—again, the only recent presidential polling that's happened within the state has been the straw poll, which gauges opinion in the party's inner circle, not among general voters—and Jack Kimball may not make the kind of difference he'd like to. But even a respectable showing from a Tea Party-affiliated candidate, which is no less likely for Kimball being in office, would open a very interesting chapter in the GOP power struggle, and the race for 2012.