One race’s final tally: 970 to 970. So two candidates square off again in a city where voters are mostly keeping their politics to themselves.
ROCHESTER, N.H. — Residents were intrigued, but not exactly shocked, when a state House of Representatives race in the small city of Rochester ended in a deadlock last month: 970 votes cast for the incumbent Democrat, 970 for the Republican challenger.
In the purplish state of New Hampshire, where Rochester sits between the liberal southern seacoast and the more conservative Lakes Region at its center, the tie only confirmed what people already knew: Their city of 30,000, like their country, is politically split. And like many Americans, they are trying to navigate the divide with a careful approach: keeping their views to themselves and attempting to get along.
Last week, state legislators voted to send the tied race in Rochester’s Ward 4, where there are about 3,000 voters, back to the city for a special election, expected to be held in February. Both candidates said they are determined to prevail, though they dread the challenge — familiar to many a hopeful presidential candidate — of inspiring voter turnout in the frigid, slushy middle of a long New Hampshire winter.
“It’s going to be a tough slog,” said David Walker, the Republican, a longtime City Council member who challenged state Representative Chuck Grassie, a three-term Democrat. “I can’t see a lot of elderly people coming out in the cold, but you just have to knock on the doors and entice them.”
The two men have known each other, and have worked together on city business, for years. Mr. Grassie said he mentored Mr. Walker in his early years on the council, helping the newcomer learn how to read a budget. Mr. Walker said he once helped Mr. Grassie with an unsuccessful campaign for mayor.
They live a half-mile apart on the same street of modest houses, separated by a cemetery, a ball field and the polling place for their ward, a brick elementary school.
Low-key despite their unresolved rivalry, the candidates say they see no reason to become enemies now. “I went by his house the other day and said hello,” Mr. Walker said. “He said, ‘Oh, you’ve come to concede?’ And I said, ‘No.’”
The mild tone of the local standoff stands in stark contrast to recent national races with split outcomes, like that of Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia, the Democrat who last week fended off a challenge from Herschel Walker, a Republican, in a bitter and chaotic runoff. In Rochester, as in many small cities and towns, politics tend to be practical, with the drama left at town hall.
David Walker, 59, who retired recently from a career as an engineering supervisor, describes himself as “conservative but not hard core.” He said voters he talked to during the campaign were most concerned about inflation, the economy and heating costs this winter, and he wants to rein in what he said was reckless spending by Democrats.
Mr. Grassie, 70, an energetic grandfather of 18 who has worked as a stockbroker, town planner and special education teacher, has been a leader of the Progressive Caucus in the New Hampshire House, and a proponent for causes including shoreline protection, tax relief for older residents and the decriminalization of marijuana.
If the tied race conjures visions of a city paralyzed by frequent, heated disagreement, the everyday reality is much quieter, said residents, some of whom take pains to keep a lid on any tensions that spill over.
“We have a no-politics rule,” reported Richard Brunelle, a manager at the Jetpack Comics store in downtown Rochester. “We don’t even play that game in here.”
The rule became necessary in 2020, he said, during the run-up to the last presidential election, when the national contest increased friction among residents. Former President Donald J. Trump lost New Hampshire to President Biden in the election, 45 percent to 53 percent, but the outcome was far closer in Rochester. Mr. Trump prevailed in the city by the slimmest of margins, beating Mr. Biden by 235 votes out of more than 16,000 cast.
Voter turnout topped 65 percent in Rochester in last month’s elections that included the state House race in Ward 4, a resounding show of engagement, and patriotism is a visible thread through the city. Residents can get a trim at the Allegiance Barbershop or the Freedom Beauty Salon, where American flags fly in a row out front. But if Mr. Trump remains a periodic topic of debate, local politics appear to draw less interest. A half dozen residents interviewed downtown said they were aware of the tie but knew little about the candidates or their positions.
Mark Marchionni, owner of Revolution Taproom and Grill, sees that as a problem.
“The less people focus on national issues, and the more they focus on local, the more they will find they have in common,” he said.
Mr. Marchionni and his wife, Stacey, originally envisioned the eight-year-old business as “a modern take on a colonial tavern” — where, historically, people shared news and discussed politics while drinking beer. But fulfilling that mission has become more difficult.
“We see the division in our guests, especially after a couple of drinks,” Ms. Marchionni said while wrapping red ribbon around a Christmas tree in the dining room. “I think a lot of people are avoiding talking politics more than they used to, and I think that is unfortunate.”
An avid history buff with his own take on America, Mr. Marchionni sometimes finds such discourse hard to resist. “Occasionally I have to shush him, and remind him, ‘We own a business — we’re middle of the road,’” his wife said.
New Hampshire has the largest House of Representatives in the country, with 400 members, each representing about 3,000 residents. That means its state-level politics are more local than most. In Rochester, many voters know the candidates personally, relationships that can make their decisions less party-driven and predictable.
When one of his council races ended in a tie in the 1980s, Mr. Grassie said, the stalemate was settled with a genial coin toss, after each candidate chose a sealed envelope containing a slip of paper that said either “heads” or “tails.” Though his opponent was allowed to provide his “lucky coin” for the toss, Mr. Grassie came out the winner, he said.
Stranger solutions have been tried. At least once in state history, Mr. Walker and Mr. Grassie said, two candidates in a tied race were allowed to share a seat in the legislature, taking turns attending sessions.
The newly elected legislature could have dispensed with the current tie more quickly last week by voting to determine a winner. With Republicans holding a slight majority, 201 to 198, Democrats feared such a move, and urged the body to resist a power grab and respect the will of voters.
In the end, representatives who gathered in the 200-year-old chamber, under portraits of native sons Franklin Pierce and Daniel Webster, tossed the decision back to the city. Watching the vote via livestream from home, his legislative email address deactivated pending the final outcome of the race, Mr. Grassie chafed at being sidelined. “I should be there, meeting new members, getting things done,” he lamented.
As the candidates mustered the strength to revive their campaigns (“I’m tired,” each confessed in separate interviews last week), Stacy Horne, a high school social studies teacher, was planning a lesson about the tied race. Ms. Horne teaches a required course for juniors and seniors at Spaulding High School in Rochester, “Civics in N.H. and the Nation: Growing Up Granite,” and in the tied result she saw a chance to drive home a crucial point.
“When we talk about turnout and the reasons people don’t vote, someone usually says, ‘People feel like their vote doesn’t count,’” she said. “That’s a perfect segue into the tie — you look at Ward 4 and see it’s all about who shows up that day.”