The White Mountain Boys.

AuthorWolfe, Rob
PositionTEN MILES SQUARE - Free State Project

Radical libertarians in New Hampshire have pushed a popular Republican governor to the right. That might save the Democrats a Senate seat.

One muggy June day in the New Hampshire House of Representatives, Bill Marsh, a Republican from the picturesque lake town of Wolfeboro, rose to buck his party. The chamber, newly under Republican control thanks to an alliance between conservatives and libertarian activists, was considering an amendment that would ban mandatory vaccinations amid a global pandemic--all mandatory vaccinations, covering diseases from COVID-19 to mumps to hepatitis. Marsh, a retired ophthalmologist who has pushed fellow Republicans to take pandemic precautions more seriously, framed his objection as probusiness. He asked, "Why would we interfere with private businesses' right to protect themselves, their employees, and their patrons?"

The amendment's sponsor was Terry Roy, a veteran, devout Christian, and self-described constitutional conservative. He spoke next in defense of the measure, launching into a rambling diatribe that referenced child labor, slavery in the American South, "Chinese bats," and the dangers of fluoridated tap water. "Does my body, my choice only apply to abortion?" he said, according to a House transcript. "What about new advances in science? What if we determine someone's characteristics can be genetically altered in utero? Would we allow mandated gene therapy? After all, propensity for carrying certain diseases costs billions in health care. What about vaccines for the flu? Will employers mandate those next?"

Roy's amendment narrowly failed, 193-182.

Retribution for the speech was swift and decisive--Marsh's speech, that is. Within days, Marsh resigned from his committee, Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs, after party leadership informed him that he would be removed as vice chairman. Later that summer, Roy was appointed vice chairman of the influential Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, replacing another wayward conservative who had disobeyed the party's radical new leadership.

A key factor in the extremism, and the extraordinary conservative successes, of this New Hampshire legislature is a group of libertarian activists known as the Free State Project. Founded in 2001 in hopes of establishing a government-free utopia, the Free State Project encourages liberty-minded people to move to New Hampshire to help push its politics even further toward low taxes and minimal state intervention. As of 2021, there are more than 5,000 Free Staters in New Hampshire. Despite their small numbers, they have built a well-funded and organized political apparatus that has elected roughly 45 Republicans to the New Hampshire House of Representatives. The libertarians vote as a bloc that, with a slim majority, the party can't do without.

With Free Staters at their back, Republicans this year have cut taxes in the already income-tax-less state, banned critical race theory and late-term abortions, and launched what's likely the most sweeping education voucher program in the nation. Under House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, a Free State mover, anti-authority libertarians have joined with anti-elite populists to shoot down anything that smacks of expertise or specialized knowledge. Recently, a joint House-Senate committee tabled its acceptance of $6.3 million in federal funds for addiction counseling in the opioid-ravaged state, with members saying they needed to see proof that counseling even works.

Over the past two decades, Free Staters have walked a long path from obscurity and ridicule to undeniable power. And as popular Republican Governor Chris Sununu eyes a 2022 U.S. Senate run, he may remember that a Free Stater, Aaron Day, is often credited with spoiling the 2016 Senate race for Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte. A year from now, the potentially vulnerable Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan may try to tie him to the libertarian extremism he has refused to reject, observers say. And if Sununu wins, he'll enter the U.S. Capitol with a group of constituents he can't afford to offend.

The founder of the Free State Project, Jason Sorens, is a mild-mannered college professor with a mop of brown hair, a boyish smile, and a knack...

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