What Does Sanders' Big New Hampshire Win Mean for the State's Democrats?

Feb 17, 2016

Bernie Sanders’ win in the New Hampshire Primary last week shook up the Democratic presidential race.

But what might that victory mean for state-level Democratic politics in New Hampshire, where Sanders’ unapologetically liberal style stands in stark contrast to the more cautious approach favored by the state’s Democratic leaders?

To understand that question, let’s go back a few days before last week’s Presidential Primary.

That's when Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, the state’s senior Democratic elected official, got heckled in the middle of a speech.

But the booing didn’t come from rowdy Republicans; it came from Bernie Sanders supporters. And Shaheen was speaking at an annual party fundraising dinner named after her.

Jeanne Shaheen celebrates her U.S. Senate re-election in 2014
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

To many Granite State Democrats, Shaheen is their most respected figure, the one who set the state party on its current footing, and so this moment was something of an outrage.

"Jeanne Shaheen made the modern Democratic party," says Judy Reardon, Shaheen’s former chief of staff.

Reardon thinks, to some extent, Sanders’ boosters are taking cues from their candidate.

"I do think when a candidate as Senator Sanders does, describes the political system as corrupt, then you probably say to yourself, I don’t need to show respect to a member of the U.S. Senate, and you act accordingly," she says.

And for Reardon and many long-time New Hampshire Democrats, this is also about perspective. In their telling, Sanders supporters just don’t get what it took to start winning elections in a state dominated by Republicans for more than a century.

When Shaheen was first elected governor, in 1996, it was still rare for Democrats to hold statewide office in New Hampshire. Since then, Democrats have found success by presenting themselves as moderate, bi-partisan consensus-builders; they try not to make too many waves, and they make sure the plows are running when snow storms hit. This model, followed by politicians like Shaheen, John Lynch and Maggie Hassan, has won the party the governor’s corner office for 18 of the last 20 years.

Sanders supporters cheering for the Vermont Senator at a campaign event in August
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

And it’s a model Bernie Sanders, with his dismissal of "same-old establishment politics," explicitly rejected.

And at least as far as the primary is concerned, the Sanders approach worked.

When I spoke to volunteers with the Sanders campaign this primary season, I heard it over and over.

Here’s what Peter Stein of Nashua told me:

"In this particular election, this is the first time I’ve become this energized about a candidate, ever."

In New Hampshire Sanders, brought in voters who aren’t engaged in the political process. And the real question is to what extent these newly-impassioned voters will stay involved – will they vote in off years, will they volunteer for other campaigns, will they run for office themselves—bringing Sanders-style politics to the New Hampshire Democratic Party?

"I think we don’t know that yet, but I certainly think there will be a very vigorous conversation going forward," says State Senator Martha Fuller Clark, one of New Hampshire’s super-delegates to the Democratic convention.

Clark has not declared whom she will support. She says if anything, Sanders style might inspire New Hampshire democrats to be less guarded.

"I would hope that would rub off on all of us who are running for office, that we can be more direct and more clear about what we stand for and be willing to take greater risks," Clark says.

Sanders walks through a crowd of supporters at the New Hampshire Statehouse on his primary filing day.
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

This is no doubt music to the ears of the party’s more liberal members.

Andru Volinsky was the Sanders campaign’s legal counsel in New Hampshire, and he says the lesson of Sanders’ big win is that Granite State Democrats are looking for something new.

"I don’t think anyone has a God-given right to be a politician," Volinsky says.

He thinks his party can get too wrapped up in what the polls and focus-groups say about the issues.

"If you don’t have core values, and you don’t have deeply held beliefs, I think this election tells us you should not be a political leader," he says

But it’s still rather soon to say. After all, success in politics is not just about winning primaries, candidates have to go on to win the general election as well.