Many years before Joe Biden was elected President, he said that in politics, nobody is ever standing still. You are always either moving up or moving down - but you are always moving.
The corollary to this is that, in politics, if you are not playing offense, you will soon be playing defense. And all it takes to confirm this is a look at the politics of my native New Hampshire over the course of my lifetime.
I was born in 1974, during Governor Mel Thomson's first term, here in New Hampshire. In the 47 years since then, I have seen state politics played basically between the goalposts set at that time by Thomson (and the presidential candidate Thomson so strongly supported in those early days, Ronald Reagan). That's right - despite the state having 60% more people now than it did in 1974, party registrations being roughly equal today, and even the branding and bases of the two major parties shifting over that period of time nationally, we here in New Hampshire are debating state-level policy using boundries remarkably similar to those of 1974.
To be clear, Democrats have made electoral progress since 1974. At the federal level, Democrats now consistently compete and win U.S. House and Senate seats, and Democrats have captured the state's four electoral votes in seven of the last eight presidential elections. Winning these federal seats is critically important in today's deeply-divided Washington.
In fact, relative to 1974, New Hampshire Democrats at the state level are clearly more competitive today. Democrats have held a majority in the State House, State Senate and Executive Council multiple times over the past 15 years, and the Governor's office all but two years between 1997 and 2017. And in some areas, this has allowed important issues, such as marriage equality, to move forward. All of this would have been unimaginable in 1974.
But that is not what we're talking about here. We're talking about what policymakers are...allowed to talk about. Where the goalposts of public policy and politics are set.
On education funding, the state has been on the wrong side of lawsuits going back to the 1980s, with courts consistently finding the state continually failing to meet its legal responsibility to adequately fund public education. We rely more on local property taxes to fund public education than any state in the country, with more school districts per capita than any state in the country, and a student population that has declined by almost a quarter in the last 25 years.
This means New Hampshire, despite 30 years of being told to address these problems, now has achieved quite a distinction: Our public schools, statewide, are somehow simultaneously the most unfairly funded and the most inefficiently structured in the country.
This results in wildly varying educational outcomes, funded with America's highest property taxes - and yet all of this is maintained in the name of...keeping taxes low.
It's an antiquated system maintained because of a political context - that sky-high local property taxes somehow don't count as "high taxes" because they are not collected at the state level. And the debates, budgets, laws, and campaigns of today are structured around this broken system, every bit as much as they were in 1974.
The budget just passed and signed into law by Governor Sununu, however, is actually worse for public school funding than the 1970s, because included in the budget is a vastly expanded "school choice" voucher that dramatically increases the amount of state public dollars that can leave local public schools when a students leaves for parochial, private, or home schooling. So despite political gains made by Democrats over the past 40+ years, let's be clear: On education funding, the goalposts are indeed moving - rightward.
What about reproductive rights? Anybody paying attention to the recently-completed state budget process, signed by Governor Sununu, knows that tucked into the budget were the most punitive, limiting, anti-choice provisions since Roe was decided (also during Thomson's first term as Governor).
New Hampshire's governors have been, with one two-year exception, at least nominally pro-choice for the last 25 years. Generally speaking, pro-choice forces have argued that as long as neither side of this issue tried to "move the goalposts" much on abortion rights, the other side of the issue would not, either.
But slowly, the goalposts were already moving rightward here, too. Laws seeking to stigmatize abortion were quietly passed in 2011, 2012, and 2017. But new laws will now make New Hampshire the most anti-choice state in the Northeast, including:
At a time when we should be playing offense on protecting women's reproductive rights -and actually expanding them, by codifying abortion rights into state law, and eliminating the state-level Hyde Amendment - the goalposts have instead lurched to the right on this issue, as well.
On guns, at a time when public polling shows the vast majority of Americans (and New Hampshirites) favor a red flag law, Governor Sununu instead signed a bill eliminating the State Police gun line for background checks. And after eliminating concealed weapon permits in 2017, the legislature and Governor Sununu expanded it this year to allow the carrying of a loaded gun on recreational and off-road vehicles. They've already indicated that in 2022, Republicans will seek to pass a law requiring New Hampshire law enforcement not to enforce federal orders, laws, or regulations restricting gun rights (also known as a "sanctuary state for guns"). Again, the goalposts are moving rightward.
On paid family and medical leave, Democrats are firmly where the majority of residents stand - but this year, Governor Sununu signed into law a version of it that is voluntary in nature, with little dedicated funding - a gimmick that doesn't even kick in until 2023, well after the next election cycle.
On cannabis, where 19 states have now legalized adult recreational use, 75% of our residents support legalization, and New Hampshire is literally surrounded by legalization, Governor Sununu remains opposed. The goalposts on this issue have moved everywhere around us - but not here.
On taxes and the state of our economy, there are signs of workers finally getting some leverage. Increased wages, including a strengthened minimum wage, and a wave of demands for a tax code that better reflects that wealth and income gains have largely gone to biggest corporations and wealthiest individuals. But in New Hampshire, the goalposts have moved, if anything, rightward.
This budget eliminates the Interest & Dividends Tax over five years - though most of that tax is paid by high-wealth households. Business taxes were cut again, at the same time that many communities will face higher local property taxes. And, of course, virtually all major politicians on both sides of the aisle continue to take The Pledge, created by Governor Thomson. But The Pledge has transformed over time, from an opposition to a general sales or income tax, into opposition to any state-level tax increase...even as it means your property taxes will consequently go even higher next year. The goalposts have been set this way for almost half a century - and, if anything, they are moving rightward.
On these and other issues, New Hampshire continues to play within the goalposts set nearly 50 years ago, despite the electoral successes of Democrats in the Governor's office over most of the last 25 years, and the longest stretch of Democratic competitiveness in legislative races in state history.
How is it possible that Republicans in New Hampshire, in the midst of these Democratic electoral successes, appear to be moving the goalposts rightward?
Republicans are moving the goalposts rightward because they are playing relentless offense. Although their legislative majorities are relatively slender, there is an understanding that if you do not play offense, you will soon be playing defense. They do not wait for widespread, bipartisan consensus to do big things; when they have a majority, they play offense.
What we see in New Hampshire should look familiar; it is exactly what we've seen from Republicans in Washington.
What Mitch McConnell did with Merrick Garland and Amy Coney Barrett on the U.S. Supreme Court, Governor Sununu did with Gordon MacDonald on the State Supreme Court. What McConnell and state-level Republicans are doing about restricting voting rights and gerrymandering, Republicans in New Hampshire have done, as well - rejecting an independent redistricting commission, and passing SB3 in 2017 to make it harder for young people to vote.
I know many people, myself included, are very upset about what just transpired in the legislature in 2021. Even the Speaker of the House, GOP Rep. Sherm Packard, acknowledged the magnitude of this budget (which included everything from abortion to school vouchers) when he said, "This is the most conservative, best budget that’s been put together in the last 50 years."
50 years. That's about when Mel Thomson was first elected governor - and this year's legislature passed the most conservative budget and policies since Thomson. And this is because Republican activists and elected officials here at the state level gained the majority, seized the opportunity, played offense, and moved the goalposts rightward.
It is easy to bemoan what is happening, but what will we do between now and 2022 (and beyond) to make sure what happened in 2020 at the state level (and is happening in our legislature in 2021) does not happen again? How do we move the goalposts in a progressive direction? Well, here are three places to start:
1) Democrats must define New Hampshire Republicans for who they now are - the party of Free State activists. Governor Sununu remains popular, because he is seen as a youthful, positive, likable, mainstream political "everyman". Democrats may not feel that way about Sununu, but it is time to acknowledge that Sununu is a skilled politician, and that the New Hampshire Republican brand will be highly competitive at the state level until one of three things happens:
1) Sununu's "brand" becomes significantly less popular; and/or
2) Democrats at the state level present as a primary face of the party somebody who is a better political talent than Sununu; and/or
3) Somebody else becomes seen as the primary face of the NH Republican Party.
In the recent budget process, Governor Sununu tried to disown significant parts of the final product - including some of the most extreme, punitive elements of the new abortion restrictions - saying that it wasn't his budget.
But, of course, he signed it into law, and Sununu gladly takes ownership of elements of it that he does like, such as the business tax cuts. But if it is not his budget, somebody should ask him...then whose budget is it? Why was Sununu unable to get exactly the budget and trailer bill he wanted?
The answer, of course, is that the House's Freedom Caucus - a group of increasing influence in the legislature made led by a number of supporters of the Free State Movement - threatened to vote down this budget unless it included some of the most regressive, out-of-the-mainstream elements which became law.
The House Majority Leader, Rep. Jason Osborne of Auburn, is one of those people. So is Rep. Keith Ammon of New Boston, and Rep. Jess Edwards of Auburn. They have become the face of the New Hampshire Republican Party, and New Hampshire Democrats should focus on building their profile, not unlike what was done with former House Speaker Bill O'Brien in 2011-2012.
2) Democrats must define ourselves based on who we are - rather than based on who we are not. For much of the last four years, Democrats have focused on being not Donald Trump. At the state level, this extended to a focus on defining Governor Sununu as being "like Trump", which has largely been unsuccessful.
With Trump being out of office, the messaging in 2021 by state Democrats has adjusted slightly. It is not that Sununu is just like Trump; it is that Sununu is an extremely ambitious, shape-shifting politician using a mainstream facade to quietly advance an out-of-the-mainstream, right-wing agenda.
Whatever one thinks of Sununu or New Hampshire Republicans, something that has not been a focus of Democratic messaging is what, specifically, NH Democrats are for - and who, specifically, is the primary face who will lead that movement for the next generation.
Governor Sununu will turn 47 later this year; former Senator Kelly Ayotte (who may be the other person at the top of the GOP ticket in 2022) just turned 53. Together, they represent the demographic cohort (Gen X) about to take over leadership positions for the next generation. We in the NH Democratic Party need to develop political talent of this same emerging generation (generally between about 45 and 55 years old) who can best provide a positive alternative vision of what it will mean to be a Democrat and a New Hampshirite for the next 20 years. (It is not a coincidence, by the way, that New Hampshire's population has a larger percentage made of Gen X than almost any state in America. This dominant part of our state's electorate is unsurprisingly expecting our party to present as our primary faces candidates who come from this same emerging generation.)
It also means developing a specific message about what our vision of the future of New Hampshire looks like - where we think the goalposts of future policymaking should be placed. How do we define freedom? How do we define fairness? How do we define opportunity and prosperity?
For 50 years, "taxes" have been defined as "state income or sales taxes", as in, "I will fight to lower your taxes," by opposing a state income tax, for example. But those policies didn't lower taxes for most people - they simply shifted the tax burden to the local level, leading to the highest property taxes in America. And in the process, we have created the most unfair, inefficient, and expensive public education system in America. That been allowed over these past 50 years, and it provides an opportunity a mile wide for New Hampshire Democrats to move the goalposts, and play offense on the issues that actually matter most, to most people: How much you're paying in taxes. The quality of your local public schools. The return you're getting for your tax dollar. The ability for your town to provide quality public safety at a price you can afford. Clean, affordable energy, and protecting our water, air, and natural world. Your quality of life.
And in terms of freedom? Democrats are the party that wants women to make decisions about their own bodies. The party that wants to legalize cannabis for adults. To live free of fear of a medical emergency because you are uninsured. To be able to get quality local education, no matter how poor your family - or your town - is.
In these areas and more, national polling consistently shows that the Democratic Party's chief weakness right now is that it is not well-branded, or well-branded. Voters know what we are against, but are not clear on what we are for. If we do not define ourselves, somebody else will. Again, if you're not playing offense, you will soon be playing defense.
3) Democrats must recruit talent early for all state-level races, keeping in mind that different kinds of seats have different kinds of goals. And just because redistricting has not been done yet doesn't mean recruiting talent can't begin in earnest.
Think of legislative districts as falling into one of three buckets:
- Safe Democratic districts - Here, we should be looking for opportunities to recruit and develop talent with the highest electoral ceiling possible, because in virtually 100% of such races, the Democratic nominee will win the general election. Thus, we should look at these seats as opportunities (where possible) to recruit candidates who can be bold, progressive, and have the maximum political talent to ptoentially run for higher office down the line.
- Swing districts - In terms of financial resources, these districts should get the most attention, for a few reasons. First, the marginal benefit of each additional dollar is highest in these districts, since the margins of victory are typically the smallest. Second, and more importantly, these are the seats that will determine if Democrats will be in the majority in the State House, State Senate, and Executive Council during the 2020s. In 2018, Democrats won a strong majority of these swing districts; in 2020, we lost the majority of them. Recruiting is critical, and raw political talent still matters a lot, but a biography and roots that can transcend party affiliation are often the difference between winning and losing in these downballot races.
- Currently red districts - Over the past decade, Republicans' primary advantage on state-level races has been a direct result of their strategy a decade ago, when they drew up the districts. While Democrats have more House and Senate seats in extremely safe districts, Republicans have more seats in marginally safe districts. This is largely because Republican drew up the districts after the 2010 elections to maximize the number of seats Republicans would typically win in non-Democratic wave election years. The bad news for Democrats is that it meant we had to get about 53% of the statewide vote for downballot candidates in order to get majorities in those legislative bodies. The good news for Democrats is that it also means dozens of currently-red seats are not that far away from being legitimate swing districts. This means that we need to invest in both candidates with strong community roots to run in these districts, as well as encourage fundamental party-building activities in these districts. That is one of the goals of Move The Goalposts going forward - especially given that the GOP again controls the redistricting process for the 2020s.
We do not know what the result of the redistricting process is yet; indeed, we probably won't know until early 2022. But we do know enough to begin working with local and county Democratic committees to identify the types of candidates needed, and specific people who might make a great fit. A successful political party is always in the business of scouting and developing raw political talent. In that spirit, recruitment does not begin in 2022; it begins now.
Move The Goalposts plans on taking the next 16 months to work on these three primary areas, with the goal of electoral success in 2022, and policy victories in 2023 and beyond. We need to move the goalposts of public policy and politics in New Hampshire in a direction that is modern, progressive, free, and fair.
Define the New Hampshire Republican Party for what it is.
Proudly define the Democratic Party for what it can and must be.
And recruit and train up our best political talent as candidates now for 2022 and beyond.
If you're ready to stop playing defense, and start playing offense, join us.
Paid for By Move the Goalposts PAC, Steve Marchand, Treasurer