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Can Republicans make up any ground in New England in 2020?

Only real pickup opportunities for party are in Maine and New Hampshire

Maine Sen. Susan Collins, right, is co-sponsoring the insulin affordability bill with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.
Maine Sen. Susan Collins, right, is co-sponsoring the insulin affordability bill with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The prospects for a Republican rebirth in New England in 2020 are dim.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the only New England Republican left in Congress, is likely facing her most competitive re-election next year.

She doesn’t have an opponent yet, but even if she survives, there are few opportunities for her party to make gains. In neighboring New Hampshire,  Democrat Jeanne Shaheen could be a top GOP Senate target in a state Hillary Clinton carried by less than half a point, but she doesn’t have an obvious challenger. 

Democrats control all 21 of the region’s House districts. Only two present realistic pickup opportunities for Republicans, and in a presidential year, both start out leaning toward Democrats.  

The GOP has been here before. When Connecticut Rep. Christopher Shays  lost in 2008, the New England delegation to the House turned all-Democratic. Republicans have climbed back since then. But it didn’t last long. 

The House lost its last Republican from New England last fall when Maine Democrat Jared Golden defeated two-term Rep. Bruce Poliquin in the country’s first use of ranked choice voting for a House race.

Two years earlier, Democrats unseated the only other New England Republican in the House, Frank C. Guinta, who represented a perpetual New Hampshire swing district. He had narrowly survived a competitive primary after battling a campaign finance and ethics scandal. 

The slow death of New England Republicans in Congress predates President Donald Trump — although he hasn’t done much to win over the moderates who used to vote for the party. Their demise is a longtime symptom of the increasing polarization of national politics. 

Also watch: Reactions to Senate GOP 2020 hype video — ‘I’m ready for the cycle’

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As pure as maple syrup 

Republicans aren’t dead at the state level in New England. Half of the region’s states have GOP governors, who have room to distance themselves from the national party. 

While New England Republicans are often thought of as moderates, that’s hardly the case when it comes to their primary voters, whom GOP strategist Ryan Williams called “as conservative as anyone else.” Williams worked for former Massachusetts Gov. (and current Utah Sen.) Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and former New Hampshire Sen. John E. Sununu’s 2008 re-election.

Look no further than Massachusetts, where Trump crushed Ohio Gov. John Kasich 49 percent to 18 percent in the 2016 GOP primary. Similarly in the Bay State last cycle, the chairman of Trump’s state campaign won the GOP Senate nomination in a three-way contest. He ended up losing to Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren by 24 points.

New England's GOP at historic low

As they do elsewhere around the country, Republicans need to run to the right (i.e., hug Trump) to win primaries. That sets them up for failure in the general election.

“Part of it is selection bias among Republican primary voters,” former New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman Fergus Cullen said.

“People have left the party. And the result is the GOP has boiled down like maple sap into syrup,” he added. “It’s more concentrated and yet more populist and anti-immigrant and protectionist than it was 10 years ago because the people who don’t hold those views have moved on.”

A comeback?

Republicans think their best strategy in New England is the same one they’re pinning their hopes to across the country — arguing that Democrats are lurching too far to the left, too quickly.

“They are really overplaying their hand,” said Kate Day, the former GOP chairwoman of New Hampshire’s Cheshire County. In her current volunteer position with the state party, she helps towns build GOP committees. She’s been surprised how many local Republican meetings have been standing room only this year.

“We suffered — and I do mean suffered — a blue wave, and I think it really woke people up,” she said. 

But GOP strategists aren’t sure there’s a path for the party to turn that grassroots energy into flipping seats. 

“Are we talking in this decade or the next one?” said Cullen, a proud “Never Trumper.” He believes it will take years for the party to recover from Trump in the Northeast. 

Pickup opportunities 

The most obvious areas where Republicans can make gains this cycle are in New Hampshire and Maine.

New Hampshire had a Republican senator as recently as 2016, when Democrat Maggie Hassan narrowly unseated GOP incumbent Kelly Ayotte. Chris Sununu (the former senator’s brother) won the governorship that same year, taking over from Hassan. Only Sununu and Ayotte are mentioned as viable challengers to Shaheen in 2020, but neither is expected to run during a presidential year. 

National Republicans are targeting the 1st District, which swung back and forth between Guinta and former Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter four times. Freshman Democratic Rep. Chris Pappas is regarded as a strong candidate with deep local ties, but Republicans believe he was relatively untested in 2018, when the GOP didn’t spend there.

If they land a good candidate, Republicans think they could put this district in play since it narrowly backed Trump. Eddie Edwards, the 2018 nominee who lost by 9 points, could run again but wouldn’t necessarily be the favorite.

Recruitment will be hard in New England during a presidential year. “I have no idea why you’d run in 2020,” one GOP strategist who knows the region said. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better with Trump on the ballot.”

The exception might be Maine’s 2nd District, which Trump carried by 10 points in 2016. Poliquin won on the first ballot in 2018, but failed to surpass 50 percent of the vote. He didn’t give up easily and hasn’t ruled out running again. 

In a conservative, working-class district that’s lost thousands of manufacturing jobs, finding a candidate with the right profile is especially important.

“There’s a feeling that the Republican Party caters more to Wall Street than their needs,” said Garrett Murch, formerly with the Maine GOP. Democrats hammered Poliquin with that message for three cycles. It finally worked when he was up against Golden, a native Mainer and combat veteran who had worked for Collins.

“Personality and character matter — and Bruce is great at both — and yet he still lost. Something weird happened in 2018, and it’s probably connected to the president’s approval rating,” Murch added. 

Other names to watch in the 2nd District include a pair of former state senators — Eric Brakey, who lost to independent Sen. Angus King by 19 points last fall, and Nichi Farnham, who lost re-election in 2012. Farnham previously served as mayor of Bangor — one of the largest cities in the sprawling 2nd District. Democrats would undoubtedly tie her to controversial former Gov. Paul R. LePage, who appointed her to the state Board of Education. 

The outlook for Republicans in the rest of the region is bleak.

The GOP flipped two state legislative seats in Connecticut special elections earlier this year. And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has even put one Connecticut freshman — Rep. Jahana Hayes — on its Frontline list for vulnerable incumbents

But the Nutmeg State isn’t likely to present Republicans with a pickup chance. “It would have to be a self-funder in Connecticut,” one Republican strategist said. The National Republican Congressional Committee has not added Hayes to its initial target list for 2020, and Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates her race solid Democratic.  

“It’s baked in now,” Williams said of Democrats’ dominance in New England at the federal level. “Republicans’ best hope is at the gubernatorial level, and they’re doing that.”