Q&A: New Hampshire’s James Pindell, political editor of WMUR.com

“I’m a political dork who went to college in Des Moines because of the Iowa caucuses.”

Political junkie James Pindell joined New Hampshire’s Hearst-owned TV station WMUR last Tuesday as its first official online political editor. A co-founder of the now-defunct Politicker.com—which published local political sites serving seventeen states—and sole founder of the subscription-based NHPoliticalreport.com (now owned by WMUR), he’s passionate about the incredible shrinking world of local political coverage. And for Pindell, there’s no better part of that world than New Hampshire.

It was a busy first few days on the job with a newly competitive GOP senate primary a week away—frontrunner Kelly Ayotte finding herself suddenly challenged by opponent Ovide Lamontagne. Pindell spoke to CJR assistant editor Joel Meares from his car, rushing to help out at a debate among GOP primary candidates last Thursday. Here is an edited transcript of that conversation.

How would you describe the nature of New Hampshire politics?

I am in love with the story that is New Hampshire politics. It was one of the most staunchly libertarian states in the country for about two hundred years. It’s a “live free or die” mentality here, “stay out of my bedroom and stay out of our wallets” is our state motto. But we saw arrive in the ’80s and ’90s a Republican Party increasingly of the South and of the West, with more of the socially conservative agenda that remains. It is not a party that New Hampshire, including the Republicans here, identified with. So we saw people leaving the Republican Party and we saw more undeclared voters. Now they’re the largest voting bloc in the state; they literally decide elections.

Has that changed the nature of the two major political parties at all?

You have a totally divided nature to the politics and one where the ethos is “live free or die.” In 2006, both of the state’s congressmen were Republicans and pro-choice. The state house speaker was Republican and pro-choice, and the state senate president was Republican and pro-choice. It’s not because pro-choice is a big issue among Republicans, it’s just that people don’t care. It’s about taxes and spending. We’re one of the few states that do not have an income tax or a sales tax.

How politically active are the voters?

It’s a very empowered electorate and we have very empowered voters. When it comes to presidential primaries and Town Hall meetings, they show up. There’s high participation and people have no problems asking tough questions to candidates. And there’s an expectation that you can’t be high and mighty and you can’t run a purely TV campaign. You have to actually go out and do a lot of parades and do door-to-door yourself as a candidate.

That must make it an interesting story to cover?

I moved to the state eight years ago. I’m a political dork who went to college in Des Moines because of the Iowa caucuses. My last job before I came here was covering the state house in West Virginia. And it’s so hard to cover politics in most states where you don’t have access to the principals. You work here and their home phone numbers are on the state website! There’s a culture where politicians have to be responsive and people show up to rallies and show up to town meetings and really take their citizenship seriously.

You say it’s all about taxes and spending. Has that been even more the case this year, where the economy has been such a dominant issue?

In New Hampshire, the fiscal issues are so ingrained into the culture that you have a Democratic governor, John Lynch, who is as fiscally conservative as the Republicans. He’s against the income tax; he’s against the sales tax. And as the state’s been having problems, all he’s been doing is cutting. He’s been fighting the unions.

But sure, the nature of this year has meant that Republicans in the state have been more fired up than they have been in recent years. Much of the fiscal focus has been on federal issues—health care, the stimulus package, and bailouts—and that’s not unlike the rest of the country. You’re seeing it intensify but it’s truly the same language New Hampshire always speaks.

The Tea Party movement really is a New Hampshire Republican ethos: social issues, whatever. It’s about fiscal issues. They’re saying the same things but they’re saying it with more expression.

Are social issues coming into play at all in the GOP senate primary?

That race started basically a year ago. If you go back through the ads and look at the focus, it’s all been about creating jobs, and, as Republican hopeful Kelly Ayotte would say in speeches, “Stop Spending!” But, at the end of the race there’s been a dramatic shift towards social issues. My most recent column is headlined, “It’s abortion, stupid.” All four major [Republican] candidates basically have the same positions when it comes to fiscal matters, basically have the same position on the secondary issue of immigration (though there are some semantics we can get into), so all we’re left with are social issues. The two businessmen and self-funders are pro-choice and the two lawyers, the establishment folks, are pro-life. It’s only become a wedge issue in the last couple of days.

Will that carry over into the general election when the primary winner takes on Democrat Paul Hodes?

Yes and no. When you’re talking about an open seat for the U.S. senate you have to talk about who you’re going to nominate when it comes to judges. And if the nominee is Kelly Ayotte, there will be social issues to debate because Hodes and she are divided on gay marriage and they’re divided on abortion. But I do think we’re going to be headed back to jobs and the economy.

You have to realize not every state is cookie cutter. The economy is something that’s going to be hanging over the candidates’ heads in the national media, and certainly locally. But the reality is that New Hampshire really doesn’t have the same unemployment concerns that the rest of the nation has. The rate here is 5.8 percent compared to 9.6 percent nationally.

Just how much of a frontrunner is Kelly Ayotte among the Republicans at this stage?

It’s an open question. I would love to create a chart that looked like an EKG showing the peaks and the valleys. She started in the race in July of 2009 and she was huge, you couldn’t touch her. She had all the establishment support; outgoing senator Judd Gregg had hand-picked her as his successor. On paper, she’s awesome. And she’s a female, which in New Hampshire unlike other states actually gets you an extra three or four points on the ballot. In fact, it’s highly possible that the entire state delegation will be female after this election. Jeanne Shaheen’s the other senator, Carol Shea-Porter is the other congressperson, and both Democrats running for Congress are women. The state senate in New Hampshire is the first legislative body to have a majority female makeup.

Ayotte is definitely the frontrunner by a good ten points. But it’s a question of turnout. One scenario is there is a high turnout and Ayotte wins forty-four to rival Ovide Lamontagne’s twenty-seven, to Bill Binnie’s seventeen, to Jim Bender’s fourteen, something like that.

The second scenario is that there is a dramatically lower turnout and we’re going to be counting votes late into the night between Ayotte and Lamontagne. If that’s the case we will have a dramatic race and that’s that Bill Binnie, who put in $6 million of his own money in a very small state—we’re not talking about Jeff Greene in Florida, $6 million actually buys you a lot in New Hampshire—coming fourth.

Why hasn’t Binnie’s money had more of an impact?

He got into the race kind of late, not ridiculously late, and Republicans like comfortable. They generally like the person for president whose turn it is—Dole, John McCain, George W. Bush—and they like to elect two things. First, the establishment, and second, the person who is the conservative they can come home to. Bill Binnie fits neither of those criteria. He had a tough challenge, he had to fundamentally change the electorate to get more independents to vote, and he hasn’t been able to create that kind of excitement.

The media is treating the governor’s race as if there is no race, even though the incumbent, Democrat John Lynch, is facing two challengers from his own party and four Republicans.

One Democratic opponent, Frank Sullivan, we don’t know anything about. And Timothy Robertson is a state representative, but remember, New Hampshire has the third largest legislative body in the western world. We have four hundred state representatives to represent about three thousand people each and they get paid $100 a year. State reps are a dime a dozen. He just hasn’t been able to get any money or be a serious candidate; he didn’t even want to run. He was trying to get other people to run to make the argument for an income tax. Our station isn’t even holding a debate. In fact, there hasn’t been a debate in the whole race. As primaries go it’s a non-issue.

Who is Lynch’s biggest threat on the Republican side?

John Stephen. He’s the establishment candidate who a couple of weeks ago even outraised John Lynch. He has some momentum behind him and right now he has a one in five chance of winning. There’s a small chance of winning, so he got in, and he’s playing for the next election.

There’s been minimal national coverage of New Hampshire this year. Why is that?

Overall there hasn’t been a lot of coverage. That’s not unsurprising but it’s a dramatic turn given that a year ago. If you looked at Chris Cillizza, if you looked at Nate Silver, if you looked at Charlie Cook, they maybe all at one point in like July or August in 2009 had the race ranked number one in terms of opportunity to flip. It got a lot of coverage.

Of the little coverage there has been, how do you think the national media is covering the race?

I think one thing that the national media can’t get and doesn’t get—and I am not criticizing, I just think they don’t get it—is that this is not a black and white race. The national media likes to take the national storyline and cookie cutter it into every place. They want us to understand races in that context. But in New Hampshire, you can’t identify the Tea Party candidate. You’ve seen some conservative blogs trying to make Ovide Lamontagne the guy in the Senate race who is the true conservative, and he is. But he’s not running against an unpalatable moderate frontrunner, which may have been the case with Lisa Murkoswski, or Charlie Crist, or Trey Grayson, or Michael Castle, or Bob Bennett, I could go down the list.

That is the national storyline, and I get it. But Kelly Ayotte, because she doesn’t have a voting record, has been able to say that she’s basically as conservative as Lamontagne. The typical national narrative hasn’t held to the extent that when Sarah Palin came in, she didn’t endorse the Tea Party man, she endorsed Kelly Ayotte.

What kind of impact does an endorsement like that have?

It’s a seal of approval. I’m a political junkie, I follow what happens in other states, but I can’t get into the impact of endorsements compared to other states. What I can say is that in New Hampshire it was huge because it gave another stamp of approval for conservatives that Ayotte is good, and you don’t have to go to Lamontagne if you want a conservative.

Did she catch a lot of grief about the local conservative newspaper about it? Yes. The Union Leader told Palin to butt out. Is it going to hurt her in the general election? Sure. Sarah Palin is not a popular figure in New Hampshire, even among Republicans. Sarah Palin definitely has a New Hampshire problem. She could fix it, but she definitely has a problem.

But in terms of the primary, it’s like a NASCAR race. You want to cut in front of the guy who’s surging up behind you before he can pass you. And that’s what Palin’s move did for Ayotte.

What is the number one question you look forward to asking in the debate?

There’s two. The first is: Why is electing Kelly Ayotte the worst move the Republicans could make? They haven’t been able to make good arguments. And secondly, I want to know if Ovide Lamontagne can handle attacks. He’s been in permanent fourth place until two weeks ago and this is his first major appearance since the surge, There are a lot of questions about him that he’s never had to answer because no one cared to ask the questions.

How has New Hampshire’s political press handled the election season, given shrinking newsrooms and budget cutbacks?

The press corps has shrunk dramatically. We’ve lost seven full-time time political reporters across the state. The Concord Monitor, which is one of the better small-town papers in the country, has always had three people dedicated to politics. In a state of 1.3 million, the only statewide circulated newspaper, The Union Leader has a circulation of under 50,000. It doesn’t even produce a Saturday paper as of last year [it does produce a “Manchester Edition” on Saturdays] and the national media watchers didn’t pick up on it. And they had three people dedicated to politics. WMUR is now the be all end all. And it’s the only television station in the state.

Do you think local news has a future?

I started this job Tuesday and I did because I still believe in that future. I started businesses behind it. I started Politicker based on the premise that there is this enormous vacuum in state political coverage. We tried to start seventeen sites, I hired fifty reporters, but the real estate market eventually dropped, and we never got to take it the full way we wanted to. So we’ll never know if that works or not.

After we left that, I started my last business on the same assumption. It was the New Hampshire Political Report, which was a subscription-based service, and was successful—I made a living off of it. People were so hungry just to have stuff covered. And it wasn’t hard to get scoops because no one calls the candidates. If you’re working for Congress, you don’t talk to reporters except for a couple of times a week.

The site, which WMUR now owns, is one of the coolest things I’ve done in journalism. Do I have thousands upon thousands of readers who pay $400 a year? No. But it’s really intimate and you really serve your audience. You’re like, ‘Okay, what does this guy want to read today?’” It’s fun and hopefully we’re the one example where you can make money in this new journalism.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.