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Jim Kenyon: Is Claremont Seeing Red?

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    Trump supporter Robert Bowles of Claremont, N.H., stands in the middle of the voting area of the Claremont Middle School gymnasium on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. "Look what he's done for the country for God's sake" he said,. "How can you not support him?" Bowles was wearing a pin on his hat that said "Remember Benghazi." (Valley News - Rick Russell) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Rick Russell

Published: 11/7/2018 1:18:35 AM
Modified: 11/7/2018 1:18:36 AM

I don’t mean to suggest that as Claremont goes, so goes the nation, but the city was arguably a bellwether in the 2016 presidential election.

Donald Trump was the first Republican to come out ahead in Claremont since George H.W. Bush in 1988. Trump’s margin of victory — 48.6 percent to Hillary Clinton’s 45.9 percent — was slight.

Still it was a bit of a stunner — to outsiders, at least — to see a community with blue-collar roots go for Trump, the classic rich guy who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.

But state Rep. John Cloutier, a Democrat who has served in the House since the 1990s, knew it didn’t bode well for his party leading up to November 2016 when “longtime Democrats had Trump signs on their lawns.”

It was understandable, though. “Claremont is a working-class community that is struggling,” Cloutier said.

Voters wanted change. Which brings me to Tuesday. Two years later, could Trump carry Claremont’s local GOP candidates across the finish line?

During the run-up to the election, House candidate Walt Stapleton knocked on 800 or so doors in Ward 3.

Stapleton, a Republican, was eager to talk with potential voters about his support for local control of school curriculums, the need to improve New Hampshire’s bridges and highways and remedies for New Hampshire’s opioid crisis.

But Donald Trump? Not so much.

“I’m selling myself first,” Stapleton said, holding a campaign sign in a steady drizzle outside Disnard Elementary School, where Ward 3 residents cast their ballots on Tuesday. “This election isn’t about the (Republican) Party. It’s about the people running.”

He figures bringing Trump into the fray ends up being a wash, anyway. “He helps me with Republicans who want to vote a straight ticket,” Stapleton said, adding that no matter what issues he campaigned on, “Democrats who hate Trump” wouldn’t vote for him.

His opponent, Democrat Chad Rolston, on the other hand, was more than happy during his door-to-door campaigning to have the president come up.

“I don’t think there’s any question that it helped me,” said Rolston, who, too, was standing with his campaign sign in the rain outside Disnard Elementary. “I encountered a huge number of people who are committed to undoing the damage of the last two years.”

The Stapleton-Rolston race was an intriguing one, starting with the different eras they represent. Stapleton, 72, spent more than 50 years in the railroad industry and has lived in Claremont for 25 years. Rolston, 43, is vice president of information systems for a Michigan-based credit union and moved in seven years ago.

On paper, the race appeared to be a toss-up. They were vying for an open seat with Rolston running for the first time and Stapleton, who lost a citywide House race to Cloutier in 2016, making his second bid.

In 2016, Trump carried Ward 3, 926-839. Trump supporter Robert Bowles lives in another part of the city, but if Stapleton and other GOP candidates were counting on a so-called Trump bump then he expected them to be sadly disappointed.

“He doesn’t even seem to have Republicans on his side,” said the 86-year-old Bowles. “He’s done so much good. Look at the economy and the stock market, but not even some Republicans are proud of what he’s done.”

Another Trump supporter, Scott Blanchette, said he paid $3 for a cab ride to the polls at Claremont Middle School. “I voted for all Republicans, except for (Democratic gubernatorial candidate) Molly Kelly,” he said. “I think John Sununu’s boy will win, but I wanted to give someone else a chance.”

Sushila Dangal, a nurse from Nepal, recently became a U.S. citizen. “This is my first time voting,” she said after casting her ballot for all Democrats.

Her husband, Prashanna Sangroula, a social worker, got a taste of the ugliness engulfing national politics on social media earlier this week, after he commented favorably on a post by Andrew Gillum, who is attempting to become Florida’s first African-American governor. Sangroula showed me one of the responses: “Go back to Africa,” someone texted.

At Ward 3, voters were lined up at the front door before the polls opened at 8 a.m.

“That’s something we haven’t seen in a while,” said Mary Woodman, Ward 3’s checklist supervisor.

Across town, the heavy turnout at Ward 2 made Tuesday “almost feel like a presidential election,” said election moderator Alison Raymond.

Until it came time to count votes. Republican incumbents Francis Gauthier and John O’Connor, who won House seats for the first time in 2016, both lost this time around.

Gary Merchant, a retired pharmacist, defeated O’Connor, 879-655, in Ward 2, which saw Trump squeeze out a 65-vote win in 2016. When I talked with Merchant outside the polls at midday, he felt upbeat about Democrats’ fortunes in general. “This really is a struggle for the soul of America,” he said.

Democrats took three of the city’s four House seats. Stapleton was the lone Republican. He eked out a 28-vote victory, 662-634, in Ward 3.

Looks like his strategy of avoiding the T-word was the right one.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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