AP

‘Free Staters’ roil New Hampshire politics in ski area spat

Aug 28, 2022, 4:41 AM | Updated: 4:43 am

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — As a former ski resort executive, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu knows something about navigating slippery slopes. But recent controversy at a county-owned ski area has raised questions about his grip on the Republican Party heading into the November elections.

Sununu, who is seeking his fourth term, recently inserted himself into a power struggle over Gunstock Mountain Resort, siding with staff who quit en masse and forced a two-week shutdown last month. Pushing back against anti-government activists who want to privatize the ski area, Sununu also called for the ouster this fall of three Republican legislators with an oversight role of the resort.

“These individuals have made bad decisions, and until they are removed from their positions and replaced with good people who recognize the wonderful asset that Gunstock is, the county will continue to suffer,” he wrote in an open letter to area residents.

Sununu’s intervention was seen by many as a rebuke of the Free State Project, a 20-year-old political experiment that promotes a mass migration of 20,000 libertarians to New Hampshire. Fewer than 6,500 have arrived so far, but they have made inroads everywhere from school boards to the legislature. What that means for Sununu, the Republican Party and the state overall is uncertain. But so-called Free Staters are clearly shaking things up.

“In my view the governor is barely holding on to his party in the lower chamber, and some of the crazy things they have tried to pull have damaged his reputation in the state,” said Linda Fowler, professor emirata of government at Dartmouth College.

In 2003, Fowler dismissed the project as a gimmick, saying it was unlikely that even 20,000 people could have a significant impact. But she also did not foresee Donald Trump’s election as president in 2016 or the coronavirus pandemic.

“Both, I think, have contributed to the fact that the Free Staters are now a negative influence on the state’s politics and that their behavior has become an election issue,” she said.

Conceived by a Yale graduate student in 2001, the Free State Project picked New Hampshire — with its low taxes, easy entry into politics and “Live Free or Die” motto — as its destination two years later. By 2016, 20,000 people had promised to pack their bags within five years. That hasn’t happened, and the group’s past president now says the pledge model has fallen by the wayside.

But it hasn’t taken huge numbers to get results.

About 45 Free Staters have been elected to the legislature since 2008; more than 20 serve now. While that is a small fraction of the 424-member legislature, it’s enough to influence policy given the GOP’s slim majority in the House.

The group counts the House majority leader as one of its own, and members often team up with dozens of other lawmakers who make up the wider “freedom caucus,” securing victories on legislation related to school choice, vaccines and limiting the governor’s power during emergencies.

One Free State stronghold is Belknap County, which owns the Gunstock ski area. After months of tension, top managers abruptly resigned last month, then returned after two commissioners were ousted. Sununu’s letter targeted both the commission members and three of the Republican lawmakers who appointed them, saying they had lost the public’s trust.

The governor later described their handling of the ski area as “just the latest episode of their craziness,” noting that one of the three — Rep. Michael Sylvia — supports having New Hampshire secede from the United States. But Sununu said he doesn’t consider them representatives of either the Free State movement or the Republican Party.

“I don’t have any problem with Free Staters,” he said. “These are not Free Staters.”

Sununu also rejected the notion that the rise of the Free State movement poses a long-term problem for his political career or his party, saying voters will reject the most extreme candidates.

“Voters are very smart,” he said. “When they see that kind of extremism, they tend to move it along on both the Republican side and the Democrat side.”

Sununu’s involvement in the Gunstock dispute could signal a turning point, said political consultant Scott Spradling.

“There was, I think, a fine line between Republicans and Free Staters. Now there’s a battle line,” he said. “Gunstock could very well be a high watermark, putting warning lights around the Free State movement for New Hampshire voters who are now going to associate their identity with this controversy.”

Either side could make the other’s lives politically miserable, Spradling said. But Sununu has credibility and popularity on his side.

“Long term, I would put my money on the establishment right, on the Sununu side of the aisle, because his politics appeals to a far broader audience,” Spradling said.

Sununu, who surprised political watchers by seeking reelection instead of running for U.S. Senate, faces five largely unknown opponents in the Sept. 13 primary, and polls show him with a wide lead over the Democratic candidate, state Sen. Tom Sherman. Even Rep. Norm Silber, one of the lawmakers Sununu wants ousted, expects Sununu to be reelected and will vote for him again if he is the nominee. But he contends that it’s Sununu who has strayed from the GOP.

“Running as a Republican with a long family history of supporting the Republican Party, I thought for sure that he would be a real Republican,” Silber said. “And he has, in my view, pandered to non-Republicans in an effort to build a base of support.”

Silber said he is not a Free Stater, but he’s being called one by Democrats hoping to flip seats in November by painting all Republicans with a Free State brush. The ski area controversy has spurred the creation of a political action committee to back candidates from both parties to defeat the “extremist Free State agenda” in Belknap County.

“People on the left, or people who don’t like fiscally conservative Republicans, have a tendency to refer to people they don’t like as Free Staters,” he said.

Carla Gericke, past president of the Free State Project, agreed.

“When there’s something positive, people laud that, but on the flip side, we’ve also become the boogeyman whenever it’s convenient,” she said. “We’re at the stage where we are successful enough that we’re just being used as a pawn between the two parties. And we just do our own thing.”

___

Follow AP for full coverage of the midterms at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections and on Twitter, https://twitter.com/ap_politics.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

American Airlines put an unspecified number of employees on leave for their involvement in an incid...

Associated Press

American Airlines CEO calls removal of Black passengers from Phoenix flight ‘unacceptable’

American Airlines put an unspecified number of employees on leave for their involvement in an incident in which several Black passengers were removed from a flight in Phoenix.

1 day ago

FILE - Crystal Baziel holds the Pan-African flag Monday, June 19, 2023, during Reedy Chapel A.M.E C...

Associated Press

The beginner’s guide to celebrating Juneteenth

For more than one-and-a-half centuries, the Juneteenth holiday has been sacred to many Black communities. It marks the day in 1865 enslaved people in Galveston, Texas found out they had been freed — after the end of the Civil War, and two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Since it was designated a federal […]

3 days ago

A Boeing 737 Max suffered damage to parts of the plane's structure after it went into a “Dutch ro...

Associated Press

Plane that did ‘Dutch roll’ on flight from Phoenix suffered structural damage, investigators say

A Boeing 737 Max suffered damage to parts of the plane's structure after it went into a “Dutch roll” during a flight from Phoenix last month.

7 days ago

This photo provided by Randy Shannon shows Mooney Falls on the Havasupai reservation outside the vi...

Associated Press

Dozens report illness after trips to waterfalls near Grand Canyon

Dozens of hikers say they fell ill during trips to a popular Arizona tourist destination that features towering blue-green waterfalls deep in a gorge neighboring Grand Canyon National Park.

8 days ago

Mugshot of Rudy Giuliani, who was processed Monday, June 10, 2024, in the Arizona fake electors cas...

Associated Press

Rudy Giuliani posts $10K cash bond after being processed in Arizona fake electors case

Rudy Giuliani, a former New York City mayor and Donald Trump attorney, was processed Monday in the Arizona fake electors case.

11 days ago

FILE - White House former chief of staff Mark Meadows speaks with reporters at the White House, Wed...

Associated Press

Former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows pleads not guilty in Arizona fake elector case

Former Donald Trump presidential chief of staff Mark Meadows and Trump 2020 Election Day operations director Michael Roman pleaded not guilty Friday in Phoenix to nine felony charges for their roles in an effort to overturn Trump's Arizona election loss to Joe Biden.

14 days ago

Sponsored Articles

...

Collins Comfort Masters

Here’s how to be worry-free when your A/C goes out in the middle of summer

PHOENIX -- As Arizona approaches another hot summer, Phoenix residents are likely to spend more time indoors.

...

Midwestern University

Midwestern University Clinics: transforming health care in the valley

Midwestern University, long a fixture of comprehensive health care education in the West Valley, is also a recognized leader in community health care.

...

Collins Comfort Masters

Here’s 1 way to ensure your family is drinking safe water

Water is maybe one of the most important resources in our lives, and especially if you have kids, you want them to have access to safe water.

‘Free Staters’ roil New Hampshire politics in ski area spat