By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
A little snow on the ground is cleansing.
The brown grass disappears and a thin layer of white sharpens the cold grey tree lines.
The dirty streets are gone with the first snow but only until the snowplows appear like unwelcome visitors to sleep.
Those snowplows resemble the coming election year with more than the usual amount of anxiety.
Not only are Democrats and Republicans almost evenly divided in New Hampshire, although both are outnumbered by undeclared voters, often called independents, but there will be new political boundaries to navigate from Congressional races to county commissioners and even down to delegate districts for the Republican Party convention.
And to date, only the House Special Redistricting Committee has approved any plans to present to the House in January. The House sets the boundaries for the two Congressional districts, its districts, county commissioner districts for nine of the 10 counties, Strafford elects commissioners at large, and the Republican convention districts.
The Senate Special Redistricting Committee will set its own boundaries, and the five Executive Council district parameters.
The House and Senate generally agree to not make changes in the House’s approved redistricting plan or in the Senate’s approved redistricting plan but the others —- Congressional, Executive Council and county commissioners — are fair game although the incumbent councilors and U.S. Representatives often have a say.
This year however, with two Democrats filling the Congressional seats and Republican majorities drawing the maps, the incumbents will have little say, while the four Republican executive councilors will have influence over the council district map.
That is why the political parties go all out to win elections when the year ends in 0 because who wins draws the maps, which Republicans have done for almost all of the last century.
How Democrats went from controlling the House, Senate and Executive Council to minority party indicates a significantly missed opportunity.
At this point in time, only incumbents Gov. Chris Sununu and U.S. Sen Maggie Hassan, who both run statewide, know what their districts will be as they run for re-election.
Everyone else will have to wait for the final maps to be approved by the House and Senate and the governor’s actions or lack of it, to know what the political landscape will be with less than a year to the critical 2022 election.
But there really is less time than many realize to make decisions and put an organization in place if you want to run for office. The state primary is Sept. 13, the latest it may be held under current law, and the general election is Nov. 8, leaving a scant eight weeks between the primary and general election.
The filing period for state and federal offices runs from June 1 to June 10, so decisions will have to be made soon if a candidate plans to run for a major office.
Despite all the speculation from the political pundits, Sununu took himself out of the U.S. Senate race against Democratic incumbent Hassan, which sent a lot of people scrambling as several state senators and state officials had set their sights on what they believed would be an open seat in the governor’s second floor, corner office of the State House.
Instead, some are trying to decide what they want to do and what they might consider.
But others will have to wait to see what happens with the redrawing of the political boundaries.
And the political boundaries could look very different than they do now.
For example, the state’s two U.S. Representative districts, which have varied little over the years with a few tweaks made here and there to adjust population changes. That usually meant moving a town or two or three from one district to the other to live within the one man, one vote guidelines.
But not this time if the House Republicans’ plan is approved.
Instead of moving one town as Democrats proposed, the Republican plan moves 75 voting precincts or about 360,000 residents, or about a quarter of the state’s population from one district to the other.
The plan creates a thumb up the middle of the state, Democrats would say a third finger, while stretching the 2nd District from the southwest corner of the state to the southeast corner with a strong Republican bubble in the middle.
Former Nashua city clerk and current Democratic Rep. Paul Bergeron said what many were thinking the day the committee voted on the plan.
“I don’t know what this is going to be called,” Bergeron said, “but it’s going to become a 2021 symbol for gerrymandering.”
It would be hard not to look at such a massive change in the district as gerrymandering to give Republicans a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
It moves a number of strongly GOP leaning towns on the southern border with Massachusetts into the 1st District while moving Democratic strongholds in the seacoast area to the 2nd District.
The end result will be a strong Republican 1st District and a strong Democratic 2nd District.
While the current Democratic 1st District U.S. Rep. Chris Pappas said he intends to run for re-election, he faces a significant uphill battle to hold on to his position, not impossible but the numbers are stacked against him.
And that is what gerrymandering is, packing and stacking, pack one party’s voter into one district so you can stack the other districts for the other party.
Although the governor said there is no gerrymandering in New Hampshire when he twice vetoed bills forming independent redistricting commissions, he must not have looked at what is now Executive Council District 2 which also stretches from the southwest corner of the state to the southeast while picking up Democratic strongholds along the way from Keene, to Concord to Dover and Durham.
While that district received a great deal of attention for its shape and blatant gerrymandering, watch for a redrawing of the district to include the Upper Valley, another Democratic stronghold to achieve the same packing of Democratic voters into one district.
Michael Cryans, D-Hanover, held the 1st District Executive Council seat for the 2019-2020 term, and already announced he plans to run again, but he may not be in the same district and could be facing a Democratic incumbent in the primary if he does.
Likewise state Sen. Harold French, R-Canterbury, has all but announced he will run for U.S. Representative in the 2nd Congressional district, which is fine now, but if the Republican plan is approved, Canterbury would be in the 1st District. A state resident can run in a district he or she does not live in, but usually his or her chances are not good.
The sooner the districts are settled the better for the candidates and incumbents, but that is not likely to happen as quickly as the majority party would like.
Just the new congressional districts are bound to be challenged in court and even with a fairly quick resolution, there will be major disruptions.
There are other issues too as many towns who by a recent state constitutional amendment should have their own districts but do not, are likely to challenge any approved plan that does not grant them their constitutional right.
Redistricting is political, and when it comes to controlling government here in New Hampshire or in Washington, it is always a no-holds barred battle. And with the changes proposed for the Granite State, it is not going to be quick, easy or uneventful.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com.
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.