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Democratic Losses Hit State Farm Teams Hard

While the GOP celebrates historic gains in the House, Republicans in state capitals across the country are cheering massive pickups that wiped out key Democratic bench players — a shift that they say may shape elections for years to come.

From Minnesota to Montana, Democrats lost state Speakers, Senate Majority Leaders, lieutenant governors and other up-and-comers whose political futures are now uncertain at best.

Nowhere is the shift more apparent than in New Hampshire, where the GOP won all three federal races and picked up a record 124 seats in the 400-member state House of Representatives.

“We didn’t just beat them. We cleaned out their entire bench. Everyone they talked about running for Congress, governor, down the line. They’re all gone,” said Ryan Williams, spokesman for the New Hampshire Republican Party. “They were building a good farm team. But the farm team is not around anymore.”

The high-profile losses include Maggie Hassan, the state Senate Majority Leader rumored to have greater ambitions. Another is Deb Pignatelli, a member of the governor’s executive council, also thought to have interest in running for Congress.

Granite State Democrats acknowledge the painful losses but insist their bench remains strong.

“We’re feeling very confident moving forward,” New Hampshire Democratic Party spokesman Harrell Kirstein said. “In a state that’s as fiercely independent as New Hampshire, politics are very cyclical. The pendulum swung one way and will swing back the other way.”

He added that President Barack Obama personally phoned unsuccessful 2nd district Congressional candidate Ann McLane Kuster (D) the day after the election to encourage her to challenge Rep.-elect Charlie Bass (R) in 2012. “Annie Kuster is on track to beat Congressman Bass in two years,” Kirstein said.

The Granite State is just one example, however, in a landslide election that saw the GOP pick up at least 675 seats in state legislatures across the nation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Republicans flipped 19 chambers, including the House and Senate in six states: Alabama, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Wisconsin.

“They’re going to have to do some serious rebuilding,” said Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party. “Some of their best talent, or people considered to be their best talent, have really taken it on the chin.”

Wisconsin Democrats lost Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan, Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker, a rising star in lieutenant governor candidate Tom Nelson and state Sen. Pat Kreitlow, a former television personality thought to have statewide appeal.

Jefferson also said that Democratic Rep. Ron Kind may have narrowly survived his re-election bid in the 3rd district, but negative press that surfaced in the campaign’s final weeks could hurt his prospects for running for statewide office in the future. Kind is viewed as having Senate aspirations whenever Sen. Herb Kohl (D), who is up for re-election in 2012, decides to retire.

“He came out of that race seriously wounded,” Jefferson said of Kind.

Like their colleagues in other states, Wisconsin Democrats admit to having a disappointing cycle but downplay the lasting effects of the 2010 drubbing.

“Let them do their victory lap, but it’ll be one lap exactly. … We have a pretty deep bench here,” said Graeme Zielinski, communications director for the Wisconsin Democratic Party. “They will have to own their record at some point soon. A week in power, they have been talking about gays, guns, banning fake weed. They haven’t been talking about creating jobs. They’ve been talking about their weirdo, right agenda.”

In Minnesota, Republicans claimed 41 seats between both chambers, taking control of the state Senate for the first time in history.

State GOP Chairman Tony Sutton says the political landscape may have changed forever.

“You had a thinning of the herd,” he said of Democrats. “And it thinned out those that are more middle-of-the-road Democrats. In some respects it will make it hard for them legislatively; the people that are left are very liberal. And they’re left with an urban-centric delegation in a state that is largely suburban and rural.”

For example, Senate Majority Whip Kathy Saltzman (D) was defeated in her Washington County district, despite having won the endorsement of the state Chamber of Commerce.

While the GOP cheers the loss of up-and-comers like Saltzman, last week’s shift also elevates the Republican farm team’s prospects.

Minnesota’s Senate will now feature the first female Republican president and Majority Leader combination, according to Sutton, who added that the likely new Republican House Speaker, Kurt Zellers, “is a real rising star” at just 41 years old.

In New Hampshire, however, there are signs that the defeated Democrats might not be gone for long. In addition to Kuster’s likely candidacy, Pignatelli offered supporters cause for optimism in a message posted on her website.

“It’s clear that what happened here in New Hampshire was stunning, even for politics. There will be lots written about it, that’s for sure,” she wrote. “A favor — as you travel on the roads in District 5, if you see any of my signs along the roadside, will you please stop and pick them up? Would appreciate it. Maybe you’d be willing to save them for a couple of years. …”

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