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Can Sununu Hold on in New Hampshire?

By Reid Wilson

Democrats, celebrating huge wins in the 2006 midterm elections, would be hard pressed to come up with a better example of their gains than New Hampshire. The party won the state's two congressional seats, knocking out incumbent Republicans, took control of the state House and Senate for the first time since the early 20th century, and re-elected Democratic Governor John Lynch with 74%, the highest percentage any Granite State governor has ever received.

For 2008, the party hopes to add to those gains by targeting first-term Republican Senator John Sununu. Democrats are optimistic that they can turn voter angst about the war in Iraq and President Bush into a way to expand their narrow majority in the upper chamber.

The Northeast is used to long-time incumbents and political families holding office for decades. The Kennedys and the Chafees lead the list of family names. Warren Rudman and George Mitchell were typical senators from the area, men with gravitas who, for the most part, operated from the center of the political spectrum.

Enter, then, John Sununu. The former Congressman and son of a former White House chief of staff and New Hampshire governor, whom few view as an extremist conservative, Sununu seemed to be a perfect fit for Northeastern Republicans, more so than the incumbent Republican, Bob Smith, he beat in the 2000 primary. But Sununu barely edged out Democratic Governor Jeanne Shaheen, a popular three-term chief executive, in what turned into a nasty race with allegations of phone jamming and other improprieties.

In his first term, Sununu has traced a generally moderate course. He was one of a small number of Republicans who joined Democrats in filibustering the renewal of the PATRIOT Act and was the first Republican to call for the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Still, says Dr. Andrew Smith, of the University of New Hampshire's Survey Center, Sununu "is not where you want to be as an incumbent." Smith's latest survey shows 43% of New Hampshire voters approve of Sununu's job performance, while 35% disapprove, a drop of 6% since the last poll, in April.

Sununu's re-election campaign faces three major problems. The first is a refrain familiar to Republican candidates around the nation. "He's in a difficult situation because the voters who are going to decide the election are mad at President Bush and the Republican party," says veteran New Hampshire pollster Dick Bennett, who has polled for some Republican candidates before.

Republicans have faced a stronger backlash of souring public opinion in the Northeast than they have in any other region. In 2006, just one Northeastern Republican congressman survived, while four others were booted from office. And many political observers believe that 2008 will be as bad, if not worse, for Republicans around the country, not just in the Northeast. The Bush albatross hangs heavily around Sununu's head.

It is the state's independent voters who, because of anger at the Bush Administration, turned so strongly against the GOP in 2006, and they show no signs of returning to the Republican fold.

Historically, more Republicans vote than Democrats in New Hampshire, though the two groups are dwarfed by the state's independent and undeclared voters. In 2004, 32% of the electorate identified themselves as Republicans, while 25% called themselves Democrats. The rest of the electorate said they were independents. "They're the ones who are still upset," Bennett said. "If the Democratic candidate makes the case that John Sununu has supported President Bush, he may pay a price among undeclared voters."

Sununu's second problem is the ever popular Governor Lynch. New Hampshire requires every state officeholder, including the governor, to run every two years, so Lynch will be on the ballot next to Sununu. This summer's UNH poll showed 76% of New Hampshire voters approved of his job performance, though his disapproval rating also hit an all-time high - of just 13%.

While voters view gubernatorial elections differently from federal elections, Lynch will be able to mobilize his by all accounts formidable vote-gathering organization in aide of the Democratic senate nominee. Until the GOP finds someone who can compete with the governor, Smith says, Democrats will have a distinct edge in the state. "They don't have anybody to run against Lynch," he said.

2002 was for the Republicans in New Hampshire what 2006 was for Democrats. Republican businessman Craig Benson won a large 59%-38% victory over State Senator Mark Fernald to become governor, and the party made gains in the state's General Court. If 2008 is as successful for Democrats as 2006 was, Lynch's popularity could contribute to Sununu's downfall.

Finally, Sununu's third problem is the 800-pound gorilla in the room: The woman he beat in 2002, Governor Shaheen. While she has not indicated whether or not she will jump into the race, many pundits believe her entry is inevitable. "If she had decided not to run, nothing is preventing her from saying so immediately, whereas there are good reasons for her to be quiet even if she was certain of running," said Senate expert Quinn McCord, state editor for The Hotline.

Indeed, should Shaheen enter the race, poll numbers show she would be the instant front-runner. Bennett's American Research Group, in a poll conducted in June, showed Shaeen beating Sununu 57% to 29%. Smith's UNH Survey Center had Shaheen leading 54% to 38%. Sununu, said Smith, "is in a bad overall position, but when you pair him up with Jeanne Shaheen, he's losing pretty badly to her."

Other candidates, including Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand, Democratic activist and former Congressional candidate Katrina Swett and former astronaut Jay Buckey, all poll well against Sununu. In no case, according to the UNH survey, does he score more than 44% (against Buckey). Against Marchand and Swett, he leads by only 4%. "Without [Shaheen] in the race, Sununu is the front-runner," said Bennett. "It's close, but he has the lead."

Shaheen's 60% favorable rating far outstrips the 43% Sununu scores. And her ability to "flip the switch," as Smith puts it, on her political organization would put her far ahead of any other Democratic candidate the day she enters the race. Former New Hampshire Democratic Party chairwoman Kathy Sullivan, who is spearheading the effort to draft Shaheen into the race, says Shaheen's political organization is the same being used by Lynch and New York Senator Hillary Clinton. If she runs, concedes Bennett, Shaheen will be the front-runner on day one.

But Sununu has a fighting chance. "It's not like he's cooked," said Smith. Bennett said the freshman senator "is not going to roll over and play dead," though Bennett calls him "pretty invisible in New Hampshire."

Whether he is able to maintain his seat, everyone agrees, comes down to whether or not New Hampshire has fundamentally changed. If it is the Democratic state that the 2006 results suggest, and should Shaheen run, Sununu may need to seek out other employment. But if 2006 was an anomaly, and if the senator can beat back Democratic efforts to hang the President around his neck, then the Democratic trend the Northeast is undergoing may be put on hold.

At the moment, based on poll results and a built-in organization in a state where politics is a way of life for a large portion of the population, Sununu may be packing his bags earlier than he planned.

Reid Wilson, an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics, formerly covered polls and polling for The Hotline, National Journal’s daily briefing on politics. Wilson’s work has appeared in National Journal, Hotline OnCall and the Arizona Capitol Times. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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