Since the 80’s the Northeast has been trending blue. In fact, since 2000 no Republican Presidential contender has won a Northeastern state (including New Hampshire). But while Republicans have struggled in the Northeast at every level (not just the Presidency) they have found some success in New Hampshire. The state is almost evenly split between Republicans, Independents and Democrats and has changed dramatically in the last decade.
New Hampshire like many swing states has undergone quite the political transition since 2006. That year, the state voted in a Democratic legislature and Governor and in 2008 the state almost turned its entire federal delegation over to Democrats with the defeat of GOP Senator John Sununu. But in 2010 the state followed many other swing states preferences by throwing out both its Democratic Congresswomen, giving the GOP control of the state legislature and a new GOP Senator (Kelly Ayotte). Following the preferences of many swing states in 2012 it voted for President Obama and threw out both its Republican Congressmen. It elected a new Democratic Governor and gave them control of the state house (the GOP narrowly held the state senate).
New Hampshire has a rich history of supporting centrist to conservative/business friendly Republicans. The state voted for Ford in his losing effort in 76, Reagan in 80 and 84 and HW in 88. It backed Clinton in both 92 and 96 and Bush in 2000. Since then the GOP has struggled to garner a majority in the state at the Presidential level. Its Congressional districts remain competitive and considering the small size of the state its Senate races are often personal and less reliant on outside factors. That said, the state has a small media market and thus tends to get saturated with ads from the New York and Pennsylvania markets.
Elected in 2008, Jean Shaheen was considered a weak candidate because of her unabashed liberalism. She had served three terms as Governor of the state (97-2003) and had run more as a centrist. In 2002 however Shaheen ran for Senate against Sununu on a much more progressive platform. Defeated in 2002 in a relatively strong GOP year she used Obama’s coattails in 2008 to defeat Sununu in her second attempt 52%-45%.
Shaheen’s tenure has been marked with several progressive votes and actions. She fully supported Obamacare, backed the Stimulus, supported Cap and Trade before it died in the Senate and voted for spending on numerous infrastructure projects. She backed the Toomey-Manchin Amendment expanding background checks on gun purchases and reversed her initial opposition to gay marriage (reflecting public opinion). This tenure makes her potentially vulnerable in a still winnable state for the GOP in non-Presidential years.
However, Republican chances in the state in 2014 may be contingent on the quality of their candidates and right now it appears to be lacking. The GOP field consists of perennial candidate Andy Martin, former state senator Jim Rubens, conservative activist Karen Testerman and former NH Senator Robert Smith. On paper Smith might look to be an appealing candidate with roots in the state but his tenure in the late 90’s was marked by controversy (leaving and reentering the GOP and then retiring).
This has left Republicans looking for a candidate that can reassemble the coalitions that have allowed them to win prior statewide races; suburban fiscal conservatives, social conservatives and a mix of moderates and libertarians. This coalition allowed Republicans to hold their Senate seats in the state in good years (2002) and bad years (1996) for the party. Geographically, Republican victories were based on carrying swing suburbs in populous Rockingham and Hillsbourough counties which house the major city of Manchester. Smaller, less populous counties often swung but not by large enough margins to decide close races.
Kelly Ayotte’s recent victory in 2010 can attest to the strength of a candidate who can wield this coalition. Trying to hold Republican Senator Judd Gregg’s seat in 2010, the party turned to a fiscal conservative and social centrist in Ayotte. Fueled by the national wave but also her personal appeal and command of the issue she defeated a progressive firebrand Paul Hodes with 60% of the vote. She carried every county in the state and more importantly carried Rockingham and Hillsborough counties by 20% plus margins.
Shaheen is not blind to her vulnerabilities. Her switch on gay marriage and doubling down on increasing spending is aimed at winning the progressive grassroots. Meanwhile she has tried to moderate her stance on Obamacare by supporting GOP efforts to modify and delay the law. Unsurprisingly these efforts have resulted in nothing but have given her talking points to say she defends the average joe and wants sensible regulation.
With a weak field Republicans are increasingly hoping former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown gets into the race. The GOP has been waiting on Brown’s decision for months and Brown’s waffling was a primary reason why Smith entered the race. Privately, those close to Brown and his family say he is leaning towards running but do not expect a decision until after February. Fortunately or unfortunately for the party Brown can wait. New Hampshire is well acquainted with the Senator due to being in the Massachusetts media market, many Massachusetts transplants live in New Hampshire and the state’s primary is one of the latest in the country. Brown’s name ID and donor base also allow him to feel out the race and analyze the full impact of Obamacare’s rollout on Shaheen.
As mentioned above New Hampshire has gone through quite a demographic shift in the last decade. While the state has remained solidly white it has seen an influx of socially and fiscally liberal individuals from New York state and Massachusetts. This has made the state harder for Republicans to win and also has made local and state elections more volatile. Much of the state’s growth has been in the populous Rockingham and Hillsborough suburbs. It is also why the GOP believes a moderate such as Brown can appeal in the state.
Still, Brown, if he runs will likely be attacked for being a carpetbagger. He recently bought a home in the state raising GOP hopes he has intentions to run. Shaheen’s campaign is also sure to unload on him for simply being a Republican and aiding obstruction in the state. In the primary Brown is sure to be attacked for being insufficiently conservative on issues like guns, abortion and spending.
Republicans remain optimistic that in time they can put this race on the table. Recent polls shown Brown can be competitive against Shaheen and he has not even announced. Furthermore, third party groups have spent heavily in the state and are likely to do so in the future. This could aid Brown or another Republican in their challenge to Shaheen.