Sullivan, Grafton Aid House Flip

While Republicans were licking their wounds and trying to figure out what hit them on Election Day, New Hampshire Democrats, including those in Sullivan and Grafton counties, celebrated the retaking of the state House of Representative.

Tuesday marked the third time in four election cycles that control of the world’s third largest democratically elected governing body has flipped.

House Democrat Leader Terie Norelli said yesterday preliminary counts show Democrats won 217 House seats and Republicans 177, with six races still to be decided. That means there was at least a 115-seat gain for Democrats in the 400-member chamber.

Democrats made gains in all corners of the states, including in the Upper Valley. In Sullivan County, Democrats will hold a 10-3 majority in the county after picking up six seats.

“You can imagine I am not jumping for joy today,” said Sullivan County Republican Chairman Steve Cunningham. “I’m totally clueless as to what happened. Our candidates worked harder than they have in the past and we stayed on message.”

Such bewilderment was echoed by other defeated Republicans yesterday, several of whom said they were at a loss to explain the setback to their party. “I was expecting just about anything but nothing like this,” said Joe Osgood, the Claremont State Rep. who lost a bid Tuesday for a seat in the State Senate to David Pierce. “As a conservative, I cannot believe what happened. I think the conservative base of this country is losing its grip,” he said.

Among the Republican casualties Tuesday was veteran lawmaker Beverly Rodeschin of Newport, who has served 20 years in Concord. She finished third in District 6 — Newport and Unity — behind first time candidates Skip Rollins, R-Newport, and Democrat Virginia Irwin.

Democratic state Rep. John Cloutier, of Claremont, who easily won his District 10 race — encompassing all three Claremont wards — over incumbent Republican Paul LaCasse, couldn’t point to any one thing that led to the Democratic surge.

“I think it was a variety of factors, including the support for the president and the high turnout. It helped us,” said Cloutier. “I also think (House) Speaker (William) O’Brien, (R-Mont Vernon), turned off a lot of people. He was divisive and polarizing, and if you were perceived to be with him, you lost.” He said the blue wave that swept across the state “sends a message to the Republican Party that it should not be so extremist, especially on social issues.”

Norelli also said she thinks voters did not like the acrimonious tone at the Statehouse under O’Brien.

“We need to do what everyone says we need to do and that is to focus on the economy and jobs,” she said.

O’Brien congratulated Democrats on their victory and indicated he will not seek the job as minority leader. He said he will work with the new House Republican leader on delivering a low tax, job-friendly state that maximizes personal freedoms. O’Brien said he also planned to rebuild his law practice.

Democrats also prevailed Tuesday in stalwart Republican quarters of the Upper Valley. In the Haverhill house races, Linda Lauer, D-Bath, knocked off state Rep. Paul Ingbretson, R-Haverhill, who has served for four terms and was the chairman of the Redress of Grievances Committee.

And Susan Ford, D-Easton, won her seat back from state Rep. Gregory Sorg, R-Easton, in Grafton District 3. Sorg was elected in 2002 but lost to Ford in 2008. Sorg regained the seat in 2010, only to lose again to Ford this year.

Lauer beat Ingbretson by a slim 73 vote margin, according to results posted on the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s website. She attributed her win to redistricting, which left Lauer and Ingbretson fighting over the Grafton 15 floterial district that includes Haverhill, Piermont, Orford, Bath, Landaff, Easton, Benton and Warren. She said the redistricting gave Ingbretson four new towns, which put her on equal footing.

But she said the local gains for Democrats were also mirrored around the county.

“I think it very well may have been a backlash of the extreme right in the Republican Party,” Lauer said. “It was a very strong response to the Democratic ticket, and I think that helped us running at the house level.”

Ingbretson couldn’t be reached before press time. And Lauer acknowledged that with such a tight race, it proves that Ingbretson the tight race is evidence of how highly voters regard Ingbretson.

“I don’t think it was any reflection of dislike of Paul,” Lauer said. “I think voters had a choice and this year they chose to try something new.”

Not all Republicans were feeling chastened by the electoral shellacking. Osgood, a state representative who served six of the last eight years in Concord, said the Democrats unfairly vilified O’Brien.

“Bill O’Brien did an excellent job reining in ridiculous spending and we helped him do it,” said Osgood. “People should have been happy.”

Although Republicans retained control of the Senate, they nonetheless lost six seats. Their margin shrunk to 13-11 from the 19-5 margin they enjoyed until a senator resigned last spring to run in a different district.

Senate President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, said yesterday he will stand again to head the upper chamber and was the unanimous choice of his caucus.

Bragdon said he has worked with Norelli, Campbell and Democratic Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan, who was Senate majority leader until being swept out of office in 2010.

“Any of the three, I have a relationship with,” he said.

Democrats swept Claremont’s four House seats, won one in District 6, held both seats in District 1 with incumbents Andy Schmidt and Ben Lefebvre and took districts 3, 8 and 9, ousting incumbent Republicans Spec Bowers, of Sunapee, Thomas Laware, of Charlestown, and Tom Howard, of Croydon, respectively. Jim Grenier, R-Goshen, defeated Matthew Baird-Torney, D-Lempster, in District 7 for the third Republican seat.

Cynthia Sweeney, D-Charlestown, who won back the seat she lost to Laware in 2010 in the single town District 8, saw the Democratic gains as a combination of better organization and an unpopular House Speaker.

“I think it was a lot of the organization OFA (Obama For America),” Sweeney said yesterday. “That man is a community organizer and that played a big part. The other thing was Bill O’Brien. His antics embarrassed the state of New Hampshire one time too many.”

Bowers, who was defeated by Sue Gottling, D-Sunapee in a rematch of the 2010 race, shared Cunningham’s take on the heavy losses for Republicans.

“I’m still trying to figure out the tea leaves,” Bowers said yesterday. “I don’t know what to say.”

New voter registration at the polls could have contributed to the Democratic victories Bowers said, adding that Democrats clearly “outorganized” Republicans across the country.

Irwin, who has been active in Newport civic life, cited what she said were “attack ads” as a key to Democratic wins.

“I think what happened was a real statement that people are against negative ads,” said Irwin, adding that women’s rights and the economy were also on the minds voters.

Irwin expects a solid working relationship among all lawmakers come January.

“I think we can get things done now that we have elected reasonable people who understand cooperation and collaboration,” she said.

Cloutier’s conclusion is that Republicans, who swept to power in the Legislature with Tea Party help two years ago as part of nationwide discontent with Obama, better see this election as a “wake-up call” and if they don’t change they will lose more or even worse, “face extinction in New Hampshire.”

Bowers was not nearly as fatalistic, but did agree Republicans have some soul searching to do.

“A lot of us will be doing a lot of thinking about what it all means but right now, I just don’t know.”

House Republicans meet Nov. 15 to nominate a speaker, while the Democrats pick a candidate on Nov. 17. The Legislature is sworn in and organizes on Dec. 5. Unless a coalition is formed of Republican and Democratic members in each chamber, the majority party’s nominee in each chamber traditionally becomes House speaker and Senate president.

Democrats won control of the House in 2006 and kept it until the 2010 election, ending a drought dating back to 1922 when the party had last enjoyed a majority in the chamber.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at Sarah Brubeck also contributed to this report.