Obama Picks Gregg, Another Republican Bastion Crumbles

There is now every reason to believe that Judd Gregg, the third-term Republican senator from New Hampshire, will soon leave his seat to join Barack Obama’s administration as commerce secretary.

It seems equally clear that Gregg only agreed to the appointment after winning an assurance from New Hampshire’s Democratic Governor, John Lynch, that his seat would be filled by a fellow Republican, thus preventing the Democrats from reaching the magical 60-seat mark in the Senate.

“Senator Gregg has assured me that if [his appointment] were to happen, it would not change the makeup of the Senate,” Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s Republican leader, said on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday.

Obviously, this is good news for Senate Republicans. But in the bigger picture, Gregg’s unusual arrangement with Lynch is still a coup for Democrats, for several reasons.

First, the 60-seat threshold is important, because a unified party with 60 seats can kill any filibuster. But it’s not that important, given the ideological diversity of the Senate. The Democratic caucus includes moderate-to-conservative red-state Democrats like Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mary Pryor of Arkansas; they would be prime candidates to defect, based on their ideological views and their home-state political imperatives, in any attempt to kill a Republican filibuster on major legislation. In such a situation, Democrats would probably have more luck appealing to moderate Republicans, like Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine.
For Democrats, reaching the 60-seat mark would probably be more symbolically significant than anything else. So Republicans might not have saved themselves much with the Gregg-Lynch deal.

More importantly, the appointment of a Republican to replace Gregg probably only extends the party’s hold on the seat until the end of 2010. Exactly whom Lynch will appoint is anyone’s guess, but it’s a good bet he’ll tap an “elder statesman” Republican, who would agree to hold the seat as a caretaker until the ’10 election, when it was due to expire anyway.

Speculation has focused on two aged New Hampshire Republicans: 86-year-old former Governor Walter Peterson, a relic from the era of moderate Yankee Republicanism who endorsed both Obama and Lynch last years, and Warren Rudman, a 79-year-old maverick Republican who previously served in the Senate from 1981 to 1993. As the Gregg story unfolded over the weekend, Rudman emphatically denied interest in returning to the Senate. Peterson indicated some level of interest, potentially making him the front-runner. The key is that Lynch will not appoint an ambitious Republican, who could then use his or her quasi-incumbency to entrench for ’10.

Gregg’s move, then, essentially ensures that there will be an open Senate seat in New Hampshire in next year’s election—and that offers a huge leg up for Democrats, mainly because the state’s political culture has shifted so dramatically away from the G.O.P. in the past two decades.

As recently as 1988, the Granite State was as solid a Republican bastion as you could find. The party controlled the governorship, both Senate seats, both House seats, and (by wide margins) both houses of the State Legislature. In the ’88 general election, George H. W. Bush crushed Michael Dukakis, governor of neighboring Massachusetts, by nearly 30 points. The shift away from the G.O.P. began on Bush’s watch: The early ’90s recession hit New Hampshire harder than most states, and the president was seen as sluggish in responding. In the ’92 election, the state voted for Democrat Bill Clinton, although Republicans still won at most other levels of the ballot.

The Newt Gingrich-led Republican Revolution in 1994 and George W. Bush’s election in 2000 accelerated the transformation, prompting the state’s old-school moderate Republicans (and Republican-leaning independents) to rethink their allegiance to a national party increasingly dominated and defined by religious conservatives from the South. The friction came to a head in 2006, when Democrats won two Congressional seats and both houses of the State Legislature—the first time they’d controlled the lower chamber since the Civil War. In 2008, they added a Senate seat to their control, when Jeanne Shaheen unseated John E. Sununu.

The trend shows no signs of slowing. Once a Republican redoubt surrounded by a sea of blue, New Hampshire is increasingly indistinguishable from its fellow New England states and their reflexive Democratic loyalties.

This is why Gregg’s departure is so devastating to Republicans. Had he run again next year, he would have been well positioned to win. Despite the state’s shift, his long tenure in office (a congressman in the ‘80s and a governor before moving to the Senate in 1992) has earned him the benefit of the doubt from most voters. His family name is also an asset; his late father, Hugh, once served as governor and spent his later years as something of an elder statesman in state politics. Gregg keeps a relatively low profile in Washington. Without the burden of Bush or a Republican-led Congress, he would probably have survived next year.

But without Gregg, New Hampshire Republicans don’t have many options. Democrats, meanwhile, suddenly have a deep bench. If Lynch, facing an unofficial three-term limit on his governorship, could be persuaded to run for the Senate next year, he’d almost certainly romp to victory. If not Lynch, both of the state’s Democratic Congressional representatives, Carol Shea-Porter and Paul Hodes, would make logical contenders. Victory in 2010 won’t be impossible for Republicans, but without Gregg, they’ll be decided underdogs.

No matter what Republicans in the Senate say, this is a serious blow for them.

Obama Picks Gregg, Another Republican Bastion Crumbles