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Shaheen Popular in N.H., But Struggles With D.C. Albatross

Shaheen Popular in N.H., But Struggles With D.C. Albatross

By Scott Conroy - October 29, 2014

BERLIN, N.H. -- A smattering of French could be heard inside a local senior center cafeteria on Monday as diners waited to be served their subsidized lunches in this city of fewer than 10,000 residents, which sits on the Androscoggin River about 40 miles from the Quebec border.

With just a week to go until Election Day, Jeanne Shaheen worked her way around the tables to chat with each and every person in attendance, handing out campaign brochures like Halloween candy.

This was the face-to-face electioneering that Shaheen has honed over the last four decades. And it has worked well in the past.

Many of these boots-, jeans- and sweatshirt-clad North Country stalwarts were the same blue-collar Democrats that Shaheen courted with alacrity when she was Jimmy Carter’s New Hampshire state director during his 1980 primary campaign against Ted Kennedy.

But times have changed for both her and for the residents of Berlin.

Shaheen is now New Hampshire’s first Democratic senator since John Durkin, who lost his re-election bid the same year that she helped Carter triumph over Kennedy.

Berlin’s decline, meanwhile, has been as steep as Shaheen’s rise in state politics.

Since its pre-Depression peak, the city has lost the pulp and paper mills that were once its economic lifeblood, along with half of its population and an incalculable quantity of optimism among the residents who have remained behind.

These may have been core Democratic voters, in theory, but the task in front of Shaheen on this particular day was a tall one: to show them that she felt their pain and persuade them to cast aside hopelessness for the kind of enthusiasm that inspires the downtrodden to vote.

In order to do that, Shaheen worked to win them over the only way she has ever known: one person at a time.

For almost a half-hour, she made her way around the room, listening to their wide range of concerns and deeply personal tales of woe.

When one man leaned in closely to explain, in painful detail, the problems he encountered trying to enroll in an exchange under the Affordable Care Act, Shaheen listened to every word and then directed a staffer to take down his contact information.

“He’s got a health care issue,” she said. “And I want to see if we can help him because he wrote to us, and we didn’t respond.”

In return, Shaheen received plenty of advice from these characteristically blunt New Hampshire voters.

When one senior citizen predicted to the first-term senator that she would do particularly well in Berlin next Tuesday, Shaheen responded in a manner befitting her past life as a political operative.

“The more votes we get up here, the more it offsets other places,” she said.

According to the latest RealClearPolitics polling average, Shaheen still leads Scott Brown -- the former Republican senator from Massachusetts -- by 2.2 percentage points.

But her dwindling edge in the polls, combined with a palpable energy shift on the ground, has left little doubt that the momentum has swung in Brown’s favor over the last couple of weeks.

Shaheen’s surprisingly precarious position is not due to the charisma deficit she faces against her garrulous and telegenic opponent.  Voters here know and like Shaheen, who is the first woman in the country ever to be elected both senator and governor -- a position she held in Concord from 1997 to 2003.

In a CNN poll released last week, 52 percent of likely voters had a favorable opinion of her, while only 45 percent had an unfavorable one.

And it’s not that Shaheen’s message has failed to hit home. Even in a state where about two-thirds of adults were born elsewhere, according to the Boston Globe, Shaheen’s characterization of Brown as a carpetbagging political opportunist appears to have resonated, at least somewhat. 

The same CNN poll showed that only 48 percent of voters had a favorable opinion of Brown, while 50 percent had an unfavorable view of the Massachusetts transplant, who established residency here less than a year ago.  

And yet, even with the advantages of incumbency, voters’ familiarity with her, and the political trend in a state that has tilted Democratic in recent years, the race has become something close to a tossup -- a trend that could portend doom for the Democrats’ hopes of retaining their Senate majority.

For national Republicans, New Hampshire is an alluring target. But for their Democratic counterparts, it’s a must-win state.

Though he has trumpeted his own independent streak, Brown’s recent success has come almost entirely from his ability to turn the race into a referendum on President Obama, who now has just a 40.3 percent approval rating in a state where he won by comfortable margins in 2008 and 2012.

For Brown, repeating the charge that Shaheen votes with Obama “99 percent of the time” is something he undertakes with the enthusiasm of a child on Christmas morning and the near-frequency of breathing.

In recent weeks, the Republican challenger also has succeeded in tapping into voters’ anxieties over the rise of ISIS in the Middle East, the nation’s porous southern border, and the arrival of the Ebola virus in the U.S.

Brown has bolstered his anti-Shaheen message with a heaping dose of the blue-collar everyman persona that helped to get him elected in Massachusetts in the 2010 special election to succeed Ted Kennedy in the Senate.

He has taken the proverbial “guy you want to have a beer with” character trait that all politicians covet and applied it literally, taking just about every opportunity to pose for the cameras with a cold one in hand.  

Pubs and tailgating parties, in fact, have become Brown’s preferred locales to grip and grin.

As he campaigned at New Hampshire’s annual Brew Fest in Portsmouth on Saturday, for instance, he took periodic sips from his craft beer as he responded to the Shaheen campaign’s charge that he was engaging in fear-mongering on the Ebola issue.

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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