New Hampshire is respected nationally as an unusual state where political activism and well-informed debate are a routine part of life. If that civic involvement should ever ebb, one of the best arguments for our state's leadoff presidential primary status will be weakened.
One good indicator of the state's political health is the number of hard-fought, competitive elections. That isn't limited to the general election. Without primaries, any party member who wants a choice — or simply an open debate on the issues before a nominee is chosen — is effectively disenfranchised. A lack of competitive primaries isn't good for the parties or for the state.
In 2012, those vital signs look good. Although the filing period doesn't begin until June 6, expect a line outside of Secretary of State Bill Gardner's door that morning. State Senate primaries were rare two years ago, but there will be at least twice as many this year. Three Republicans hope to fill Ray Wieczorek's seat at the Executive Council table. Both parties' gubernatorial nominations are up for grabs.
Still, according to the conventional political wisdom, many nominations are all but certain. “Insiders” will tell you that the field in many districts has been cleared for the incumbent or a favored newcomer. For instance, you may hear that the pairings for this November's congressional races are set in stone: Frank Guinta vs. Carol Shea-Porter and Charlie Bass vs. Ann McLane Kuster. Their September primaries will be meaningless.
Fortunately, insiders and incumbents are not invulnerable. New Hampshire's election history includes many upsets by little-known candidates. Shea-Porter herself stunned her party's well-funded favorite, House Majority Leader Jim Craig, in a 2006 congressional primary. A decade earlier, U.S. Rep. Bill Zeliff's political career ended with his shocking defeat by Ovide Lamontagne in a gubernatorial primary.
In a presidential election year when public dissatisfaction with politics as usual is higher than ever, upsets are very possible. There are real opportunities in the Sept. 11 primary and in November. The more serious candidates on the ballot, the better.