Jeanne Shaheen, who stepped down as director of the Institute of Politics on Friday to run for the U.S. Senate from New Hampshire, lost by 4 percent the last time she sought the seat in 2002. But changes in the state’s political dynamics suggest that she might face an easier time in the upcoming race.
Shaheen—who served as governor of the state from 1997 to 2003—is heading for a rematch of her 2002 Senate race, which she lost by just 4 percent to Republican Sen. John E. Sununu, the scion of one of the state’s most prominent political families.
But while any candidate faces challenges in running against a well-financed incumbent, a recent poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center shows Shaheen topping Sununu, a 1991 graduate of the Business School, by a 54 to 38 percent margin.
A CHANGING STATE
The most significant reasons for Shaheen’s narrow loss in 2002 were likely the national political mood and the electoral dynamics of New Hampshire—both of which have changed considerably.
In the 2002 midterm elections, which saw the Democrats lose control of the U.S. Senate and their deficit in the House widen, Republicans in New Hampshire maintained total control of the state’s four-person congressional delegation.
But during the Democratic takeover of Congress last year, both of New Hampshire’s moderate Republican congressmen were toppled by long-shot Democratic challengers, who were aided by the souring national mood over the war in Iraq.
Simultaneously, the state itself has been electing more Democrats with each election cycle.
New Hampshire was the only state that voted for Republican George W. Bush in 2000 and then Democrat John F. Kerry in 2004.
And while the state elected a Republican governor in 2002, he was defeated by a Democrat—former Harvard Business School admissions director John Lynch—in 2004. Last year, Democrats won control of both houses of the state legislature, marking the first time the party has had control of all levers of power in Concord, the state capital, since 1874.
A VULNERABLE INCUMBENT
Sununu, who ran as a “fresh face” in 2002, even knocking off a Republican incumbent in that year’s primary, has been tarnished by his consistent support for Bush, whose approval rating in the state stood at 24 percent in July.
Sununu has voted in favor of the White House’s Iraq policy, opposing timetables for withdrawal and working with Republicans to defeat Democratic attempts to block the so-called “surge” in troops this year.
His support of White House policy has made him a target of the anti-war political action committee VoteVets.org, which has already aired attack ads featuring retired Army Major General John Batiste, a former Iraq commander and outspoken war critic.
As of February, Sununu’s approval rating was 45 percent—below the critical 50 percent threshold that professional pollsters use to determine an incumbent’s vulnerability.
Shaheen also faced a challenge in the 2002 senate race of having to overcome her then-recent record of raising taxes as governor.
While Shaheen was elected twice by large margins, she won reelection in 2000 by only six points.
In that race, Shaheen was squeezed from both the left and right. She drew a primary challenge from a state senator who wanted to increase taxes to pay for education, and while she eventually put her support behind the tax increase, she was derided by Republicans as a tax-hiking liberal throughout the general election campaign.
The 2002 race also saw some classic political dirty tricks: state and national Republicans jammed telephone lines that Democrats had set up in New Hampshire to handle voters who needed transportation to the polls. The scandal resulted in prison sentences for three Republican operatives, and commentators said the jamming could have tipped the race in Sununu’s favor.
—Staff writer Paras D. Bhayani can be reached at email@example.com.