CONCORD, N.H. -- The annual meeting of the New Hampshire Young Republicans Federation is not the kind of event that typically generates much interest outside the group’s membership.
This year, however, it is the site of a brewing conflict between young conservative activists on one side and the New Hampshire Republican Party and a top hire for Sen. Rand Paul’s presidential campaign on the other. In the backdrop is the state party's first major 2016 cattle call, a two-day event featuring over a dozen declared and prospective candidates set to take place this weekend.
The controversy began on April 4 -- the last day that anyone hoping to become a new voting member of the New Hampshire Young Republicans could pay the $25 dues to the group’s treasurer. Only dues-paying members are allowed to vote in the group’s biennial elections, set for this coming Saturday, in which two candidates will vie for the position of chairman.
Traditionally, the Young Republicans group has not exercised much influence over the state presidential primary. But it is not without some power, as its chairman gets a seat on the state GOP's executive committee, a board filled with influential New Hampshire Republicans that can exert influence on the 2016 campaign.
The deadline for dues doesn't typically produce any drama. But this year, outgoing New Hampshire Young Republicans Chairman Molly Sanborn informed the group’s three-person credentialing committee that she had received applications from 70 new members just before the deadline. For a group that had until then included a total of just 59 dues-paying members, it appeared to be a strange and sudden surge of interest. If accepted, these new members would be allowed to vote in Saturday’s election.
But the real source of intrigue lies in where much of the new dues money came from. Veteran New Hampshire GOP operative David Chesley contributed a personal check for over $1,000, according to several Young Republicans members -- enough to cover the costs for 41 of the 70 new applicants.
Chesley currently serves as political director and senior adviser to the New Hampshire Republican Party. But following the state GOP’s 2016 confab in Nashua this weekend, he is slated to join Paul’s presidential campaign as the Kentucky senator’s New Hampshire political director.
Worried that the last-minute push to add so many new members was an attempt by a state GOP official/Paul ally to take over their organization, the Young Republicans credentialing committee declared the new applicants invalid. The committee said that the group’s treasurer, Adam Lord, had not seen evidence that the required dues had arrived before the 4 p.m. cutoff time on April 4.
Lord did not respond to phone and email inquiries on Wednesday. But text messages exchanged on Monday, April 6, between him and Bob Burns -- one of the two candidates vying for New Hampshire Young Republicans chairman -- indicate that Lord had not received the Chesley check from Sanborn two days past the deadline.
“If they were not received by the organization then they don’t count as votes,” Lord assured Burns in one text, obtained by The Huffington Post. “lol why is she holding out on getting us info?”
Similarly, on Tuesday, April 7, Lord sent a text indicating that he still had not received Chesley’s big check or any confirmation of when it was submitted.
Were that the end of the matter, the likelihood of drama this weekend would be minimal. New voting members would not flood into the New Hampshire Young Republicans, and the group would hold its election without much attention. But Burns has expressed concern that under pressure from the state GOP, the group will instead welcome all of the new applicants and, in the process, tip the scales against him in the chairmanship contest.
Burns has twice run unsuccessfully for the New Hampshire state Executive Council -- which, along with the governor, administers state government -- and is regarded skeptically within the state GOP. In an interview with The Huffington Post, he alleged that top-level New Hampshire GOP officials were spearheading an effort to prevent him from winning the Young Republicans chairmanship.
“Legitimately, in the 10 years I’ve been involved with the [New Hampshire Young Republicans] and five conventions, I’d say the average number of people who show up is 20 people,” Burns said. “So to have an employee of a presidential campaign to magnanimously show up with a check for over $1,000 and a list of names we’ve never seen before, it’s strange as heck.”
Such allegations rarely burst into public view. That Burns’ charge is going public just days before the party's presidential wannabes descend on the state underscores the dysfunction and petty score-settling that has become rife within New Hampshire Republican circles. It also previews the kind of aggressive under-the-radar politicking that is likely to occur in the coming months as the most wide-open GOP presidential primary in memory kicks into high gear.
An aide to the Paul camp declined to comment about the situation other than to note that Chesley is not yet on the campaign’s payroll.
Sanborn, the outgoing New Hampshire Young Republicans chairman, said in an interview that her willingness to accept the new voting members was entirely above board. She also noted that other group officials had covered the dues of new members, though she acknowledged that none had spent anything approaching the more than $1,000 that Chesley contributed.
“Some people paid other people’s dues, just to get it in by the deadline, you know, because everyone’s busy and running around,” Sanborn said. “And it happened. There’s no involvement with the Rand Paul campaign at all. ... David Chesley didn’t do anything different than I’d say four or five other people.”
Sanborn also noted that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), not Paul, is the only presidential candidate slated to speak at the Young Republicans convention on Saturday, bolstering the case that the conflict is more about internal New Hampshire politics than it is presidential-level scheming.
If the wave of new members do end up being accepted, the likely beneficiary would be state Rep. Joe Sweeney, a 21-year-old student at the University of New Hampshire who is the other candidate running for chairman. Sweeney denied strongly that he was being used as a pawn by either the Paul campaign or the state GOP and said that there wasn’t anything untoward about the last-minute membership surge.
“There was sort of a crunch in time,” Sweeney said. “There wasn’t well communication as to when they were able to sign up, so I think that caused the sort of big push in membership.”
At this stage, no one involved knows just what will happen when the New Hampshire Young Republicans convene their meeting in Nashua at the same site as the New Hampshire GOP's #FITN Republican Leadership Conference. (FITN stands for "first in the nation," a reference to the state's presidential primary.)
Burns predicted “a shit show.”
The plot thickened on Wednesday when the state GOP, at Chairman Jennifer Horn’s direction, inserted itself directly into the controversy.
In a letter on his legal stationery, Mark Derby, a Concord-based attorney who also serves as treasurer of the Merrimack County GOP, wrote that he had been asked by Horn “to review the events leading up to this weekend’s [New Hampshire Young Republicans Federation] Annual Meeting." He added that “it appears that there may be some material irregularities” with respect to the credentialing deadline and that resolving those irregularities would be “entirely up to the NHYRF.”
The letter continued, “However, because the NHYRF Chair sits on the NHRSC [an acronym for the state GOP] Executive Committee, please be on notice that material procedural irregularities or defects in the election process may prevent the NHRSC Executive Committee from seating a NHYRF Chair elected under such circumstances, and the NHRSC reserves the right to do so.”
Read the full letter here.
The implication of Derby’s letter seems clear: The New Hampshire Young Republicans Federation should allow the disputed new members to vote in Saturday’s election -- a move that would almost certainly lead to a Sweeney victory -- or else risk losing its seat at the grownups' table, which comes with some real power and stature within the state GOP hierarchy.
Phone calls and emails on Wednesday to Derby, Chesley and Horn all went unreturned.