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Posted at 12:36 PM ET, 01/24/2011

Is the New Hampshire GOP establishment overrated?

By Chris Cillizza

The late Gov. Hugh Gregg and former Gov. John Sununu were two pillars of the Republican establishment in New Hampshire. Photos by Shawn Thew and Ray Lustig of the Washington Post

The victory of tea-party favorite Jack Kimball over Juliana Bergeron for the chairmanship of the New Hampshire Republican party chairmanship over the weekend is the latest example of the GOP establishment in the Granite State struggling to deliver.

To wit:

* Conservative firebrand Pat Buchanan upset Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole in the 1996 Republican presidential primary in New Hampshire.

* That same year conservative favorite Ovide Lamontagne beat establishment pick and Rep. Bill Zeliff in the gubernatorial primary.

* In the 2000 presidential primary in the state, then Texas Gov. George W. Bush had the endorsement of virtually every power player in the state from former Gov. John H. Sununu to then Sen. Judd Gregg. Arizona Sen. John McCain won by 19 points.

* In the 2008 presidential primary, the establishment largely lined up behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- although in a less clearly unified way than they had eight years before behind Bush. McCain won again.

* In the 2010 open seat primary to replace Gregg, Lamontagne very nearly pulled off a stunning upset of now Sen. Kelly Ayotte despite the fact that she had lined up vast establishment support in New Hampshire and Washington. (And a new poll shows Lamontagne as the early favorite for the 2012 GOP governor's nod.)

There have been plenty of establishment wins as well. Kimball lost a gubernatorial primary race to an establishment favorite in 2010 and establishment picks won contested GOP primaries in the 1st and 2nd House districts as well last election.

And, two former New Hampshire Republican governors -- the late Hugh Gregg and John H. Sununu -- watched as their sons ascended to the U.S. Senate from the state. (Sununu the elder served as state party chairman in the last election cycle but was unable to install his preferred pick -- Bergeron -- as his successor.)

But, the establishment is supposed to win. That's why it's the establishment, after all.

So, what gives? Is the New Hampshire establishment a less powerful force than many at the national level make it out to be? And, as importantly, why?

Mike Dennehy, a New Hampshire-based Republican operative who aided McCain's campaigns in the state, explained that "voters in New Hampshire don't like to be told by who they should support by the Republican establishment."

There is, without question, an independent streak in New Hampshire voters that is proudly protected by the electorate -- this is the state whose motto is "Live Free or Die".

And, as veteran GOP strategist Tom Rath points out, the central role New Hampshire has played in presidential elections -- primaries and general elections -- makes politics a "participatory exercise" in the state, That is, voters deeply engage in the process and are more well informed than the average voter in a larger state with a less established tradition of presidential primary voting. "Nobody wins anything on the basis of endorsements or big names," said Rath.

Others argued that this weekend's chairmanship election should not be cited as an example of the weakness of the party establishment but rather as evidence of a distaste with the allegedly heavy-handed role Sununu played in trying to install Bergeron.

"Most of this was the state committee not liking Sununu telling them how to vote," said one veteran New Hampshire Republican operative granted anonymity to speak candidly. "They resent it just like the Republican National Committee does."

Regardless of the reasoning, however, recent results suggest that simply winning the backing of the traditional power centers in New Hampshire Republican politics may not be enough to secure a victory for any candidate in the 2012 primary in the state.

Romney, who easily won a straw poll in the state over the weekend, is likely to enjoy the lion's share of establishment support for his presidential bid but recent history suggests there could well be room for a candidate running explicitly against that establishment to make headway in the Granite State next year.

By Chris Cillizza  | January 24, 2011; 12:36 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2012  
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