Washington When the pack of presidential hopefuls and the reporters who follow them descend on New Hampshire in January, as the 2008 campaign begins, a surprise awaits them. For the first time in anyone's life, New Hampshire has turned into a bright-blue Democratic state.
Buried in the news of the national Democratic midterm election victory was an even more dramatic power shift in the state that has become famous as the site of the first presidential primary in each cycle.
In the words of veteran New Hampshire Republican leader Tom Rath, it was "beyond historic" when the Democrats took complete control of the handsome state capitol in Concord for the first time since 1874.
Democratic Gov. John Lynch won a second term with 74 percent of the votes, providing coattails for many others on the ticket.
The Executive Council, which has the power to confirm appointees and approve state contracts, switched from 4-1 Republican to 3-2 Democratic.
The state Senate, which Republicans controlled 16-8, is now Democratic by a 14-10 margin. The state House of Representatives, which is dwarfed in size only by the British House of Commons and the U.S. House of Representatives, went from 242-150 Republican, with 8 vacancies, to 239-161 Democratic.
In addition, Democrats defeated both incumbent Republican congressmen in a powerful demonstration of party-line voting.
New Hampshire was not alone. Iowa, whose presidential caucuses come even earlier than the New Hampshire primary, also elected a Democrat as governor and saw both houses of its Legislature flip to the Democrats.
Nationally, the Democrats emerged in control of 56 legislative chambers to the Republicans' 41. Democrats control both houses in 24 states; Republicans, in 16; and nine states have split control. (Nebraska has a nonpartisan, unicameral Legislature.)
These numbers become more important as we approach 2010 and another Census, which will provide the raw material for the next round of line-drawing for congressional and legislative districts. If Democrats can maintain their legislative advantage along with their new 28-22 lead in governorships, they will be in the driver's seat on that redistricting.
Dante Scala, a professor of political science at St. Anselm College and authority on New Hampshire politics, said there were 80,000 straight-ticket Democratic votes - almost twice the number of straight Republican ballots in the state.
The Democrats, who for decades were a scorned minority in New Hampshire, "had much better organization and far outclassed the Republicans this time," Scala told me. "Combined with the national trend and the popularity of Gov. Lynch, the Republicans were just overwhelmed."
Rath used similar language, speaking of "an enormous surge we (Republicans) couldn't stop." It was fueled, he said, by the same anger at Washington, frustration over Iraq and disgust with the Republican Congress that prevailed nationally. But it was abetted in New Hampshire by the growing number of political independents who this year joined the Democrats in voting for change.
The force of the movement spared no one. Peter Spaulding, a longtime member of the Executive Council and a leader in John McCain's victorious 2000 New Hampshire primary campaign, lost his seat to a 71-year-old opponent who barely made any effort and who was vacationing in Belgium when the election returns came in. Dozens of longtime citizen-legislators, serving part-time for $200 a term and rarely having to bother to campaign, found themselves voted out of office.
"The only successful Republicans were the ones who were not on the ballot in 2006," such as Sens. Judd Gregg and John Sununu, Rath said.
The fathers of these two senators were famous for steering the New Hampshire campaigns of Republicans who became president, but that was in the days when Republicans were dominant. Now, with Democrats resurgent and independents ever more influential, the kingmaker role may no longer be available to GOP operatives.
Republicans such as McCain, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani may face a more hostile climate, in both New Hampshire and Iowa. And Democrats will be dealing with a constituency that, this year at least, was strongly anti-war and anti-Washington politician.
Lynch, who helped power the Democratic victory this year, has announced no favorite for the presidential nomination. He has stayed above the political battle at home, hoarding his political capital. If he chooses to endorse, it will carry more weight than any Democratic endorsement in a long time.