May 14. 2014 11:12PM

Drew Cline: Will Derry provide Senate Republican primary fireworks again?


CHRIS WOLFE, chairman of the Derry Republican Committee from 1996-2006, moved to Derry in 1984. He cannot remember when Derry was represented in the state Senate by a Democrat. The district, Senate District 19, has been represented by a Derry Republican since 2003. Its current occupant, Sen. Jim Rausch, R-Derry, is retiring, which raises the prospect that some Derry Republicans are dreading: another bitter and personal primary.

District 19 was once represented by Senate President Arthur Klemm, R-Windham. In 2002, three-term state Rep. Frank Sapareto defeated Klemm in the GOP Senate primary after redistricting put Derry in the district. Sapareto won the general election, then lost in the 2004 primary to Bob Letourneau, R-Derry, who held the seat for three terms. Sapareto challenged Letourneau in the primary in 2006 but lost and later won election to the House. Sapareto is one of three Republicans (two from Derry) who wasted no time in announcing their interest in running for the Senate nomination. The temptation is easy to understand.

In the Democratic wave years of 2012 and 2008, Republican Rausch won easily, by 5,454 and 6,072 votes, respectively. The next senator from the district will almost certainly be whichever candidate wins the Republican primary. So far Sapareto, Derry Republican Party Chairman Jim Foley, and Rep. Regina Birdsell of Hampstead, chairman of the Rockingham County GOP, have announced their intention to run. Will the primary turn ugly?

The Derry GOP has something of a reputation for infighting and acrimony. How much of that is deserved is debatable. Some factions might really dislike each other more than their counterparts in other towns do. Or maybe the lack of competition from an opposing party means rivals in the GOP primary don’t feel the need to pull their punches.

“From my view, the majority of Republicans work very well together,” said Wolfe, the former town party chairman.Foley said a “town war” in the Derry GOP “quite frankly doesn’t exist ... . Ones who are supposedly on the opposite side — Howie Lund and Kevin Coyle and certainly Sapareto has been there — we work closely together.” But bitter primaries for the Senate seat have been plentiful. Klemm’s campaign accused Sapareto of push polling in 2002. Sapareto’s campaign manager admitted to using phone calls in which voters were asked which candidate they supported, and those who answered “Klemm” were read negative statements about the incumbent. Sapareto’s 2004 and 2006 primaries against Letourneau were heated as well.

“When I ran against him, it was downright ugly,” Letourneau said of his primaries with Sapareto. He came against me personally. My wife was not pleased with that. This race will probably get ugly.”

Sapareto does not think so. “I like Regina Birdsell. I have nothing to say bad about her,” he said. “We’re going to see who’s going to get in the race. I have nothing against Jim Foley. I think he’s done a great job as chairman of the town committee.”

Sapareto, like Foley, said talk of bad blood is overblown.

“Honestly I think a lot of that stuff’s perpetuated by the media,” he said. “I hope this campaign is going to be about the issues, about where you stand on the issues. I think that’s what voters want.”

Still, the tempting targets are there. Last year Sapareto was convicted of simple assault on his girlfriend’s 20-year-old daughter. Though Superior Court Judge Marguerite Wageling said she believed Sapareto was just an “animated guy” who “never intended to harm anybody,” it is easy to see how that could be exploited in a primary if the race is tight. A Republican who wanted to portray himself as an outsider could point to Foley’s time chairing the town committee and supporting Rausch, who sponsored this year’s bill to raise the gas tax.

Political observers who enjoy campaign fireworks will want to keep an eye on the District 19 primary. It could be a polite race based entirely on the issues. But it has the ingredients for some spectacular explosions.

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. His column runs on Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter@Drewhampshire.