‘Free Staters’ stir up New Hampshire politics in a ski resort spit

New Hampshire Governor Election 2022 (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

New Hampshire Governor Election 2022 (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

As a former ski resort executive, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu knows a thing or two about navigating slippery slopes. However, the recent controversy at a county-owned ski resort has raised questions about its influence in the Republican Party ahead of November’s election.

Sununu, who is seeking his fourth term, recently got involved in a power struggle over Gunstock Mountain Resort, siding with the staff who quit en masse and forced a two-week shutdown last month. Sununu has fought back against anti-government activists who want to privatize the ski resort, and this fall also called for the ouster of three Republican lawmakers with oversight roles at the resort.

“These individuals made poor decisions and until they are removed from their positions and replaced by good people who see the wonderful benefit of Gunstock, the county will continue to suffer,” he wrote in an open letter to residents.

Sununu’s intervention was viewed by many as a rebuke to the Free State Project, a 20-year-old political experiment encouraging a mass migration of 20,000 libertarians to New Hampshire. Fewer than 6,500 have arrived so far, but they’ve made their way everywhere from school boards to lawmakers. What that means for Sununu, the Republican Party, and the state as a whole is uncertain. But the so-called Freistaatler are clearly mixing 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’ve been trying to pull off have damaged his reputation in the state,” said Linda Fowler, professor of Emirati 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 didn’t anticipate Donald Trump’s election as president in 2016 or the coronavirus pandemic.

“In my opinion, both have contributed to the fact that the Freistaatler are now having a negative influence on the country’s politics and their behavior has become a campaign issue,” she said.

Conceived in 2001 by a Yale student, the Free State Project chose 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 didn’t happen, and the group’s former president now says the Pledge model fell by the wayside.

But it didn’t take big numbers to get results.

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

The group counts the Majority Leader of the House of Representatives as one of its own, and its members often join forces with dozens of other lawmakers to form the broader “Freedom Committee,” which boasts victories on legislation related to school choice, vaccines and curtailing the governor’s powers secured in emergencies.

A Free State stronghold is Belknap County, which owns Gunstock Ski Resort. After months of tension, top executives 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 public trust.

The governor later described their handling of the ski resort as “just the latest episode in their madness,” noting that one of the three — Rep. Michael Sylvia — supports New Hampshire’s secession from the United States. But Sununu said he does not consider them representatives of either the Free State Movement or the Republican Party.

“I have no problem with free staters,” he said. “These aren’t Free Staters.”

Sununu also dismissed the notion that the rise of the Free State Movement posed a long-term problem for his political career or his party, saying voters would reject the most extreme candidates.

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

Sununu’s involvement in the Gunstock dispute could signal a turning point, said policy adviser 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 climax and set warning lights around the Free State movement for New Hampshire voters who will now tie their identities to this controversy.”

Both sides could make life politically miserable for the other, said Spradling. But Sununu has credibility and popularity on its side.

“In the long run, I would put my money on the right of the establishment, on the Sununu side of the aisle, because its politics appeal to a much broader audience,” Spradling said.

Sununu, who surprised political observers by seeking re-election rather than running for the US Senate, faces five largely unknown opponents in the Sept. 13 primary, and polls show he’s a wide margin over Democratic nominee Senator Tom Sherman, has. Even Rep. Norm Silber, one of the lawmakers Sununu wants to oust, expects Sununu to be re-elected and will vote for him again if he is the nominee. But he claims that it is Sununu who deviated from the GOP.

“As a Republican with a long family history of supporting the Republican Party, I was certain that he would be a true Republican,” Silber said. “And he flattered non-Republicans, I think, to build a base of support.”

Silber said he’s not a Free Stateman, but he’s being referred to as one by Democrats, hoping to turn seats in November by painting all Republicans a Free State brush. The ski resort controversy has spurred the formation of a political action committee to support bipartisan candidates to defeat the “extremist Free State agenda” in Belknap County.

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

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

“When there’s something positive, people praise that, but on the other hand, we’ve also become the boogeyman whenever it’s appropriate,” she said. “We’ve gotten to a point where we’re so successful that we’re just being used as a pawn between the two parties. And we just do our own thing.”

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