Listen Now

In New Hampshire, An Unexpected Tight Race For Senate

Aug 25, 2014
Originally published on August 25, 2014 1:59 pm

When discussing competitive U.S. Senate races, New Hampshire isn't at the top of the list. Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana — they all have tight contests. But now it seems even New Hampshire may be in play.

Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen is a former longtime New Hampshire governor, finishing up her first term in the U.S. Senate. Polls consistently find she's still personally popular, even after millions of dollars in attack ads run against her. And yet a recent WMUR Granite State poll finds she has a race on her hands.

Last month, that poll showed her up 12 points over her likely opponent, former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown. Now it's a statistical tie.

In politics, it's dangerous to read too much into any one poll, but if Shaheen is in trouble, observers say it has more to do with the national dynamic than with either her or Brown.

On a recent day, Brown walked in to the Franklin VFW hall, shaking everyone's hand along the way. There were about 40 people there for the town hall meeting, mostly senior citizens and mostly Brown supporters. One woman asked who he thinks would make the best Republican president, and Brown is ready with an answer.

"Anybody would be better than President Obama," Brown said to a round of applause. "I know that he's not up for re-election. I know you're shocked to hear that. But guess what? His No. 1 foot soldier is Sen. Shaheen. She's up for re-election."

Go to any of the states with races where Republicans hope to knock off Democratic incumbents and you'll hear a nearly identical message. The theory being: President Obama is so unpopular, and tying incumbents to him is a path to victory. Brown says the country's future rests on Republican control of the Senate, and his election would be part of that.

"And you have an opportunity to send a very powerful message. And what's that? It's me," he said. "You send me back down to Washington, and I guarantee the president and Harry Reid will not be happy."

About 45 minutes after it began, the town hall was over and Brown hopped behind the wheel of his beat-up, green pickup truck.

Brown seemingly can't get enough contact with voters. Doing 5K races, parades, town halls and closed-door meet and greets — he takes that truck everywhere.

It's closing in on 300,000 miles and was a big part of his brand when he ran for Senate in Massachusetts. He won a special election in 2010 but was defeated three years later. Now in New Hampshire, Brown is trying to make this a national race, and Shaheen wants to keep it local.

Shaheen got her daily dose of cute at a preschool in Rochester. She was there to tout her bill to expand the child care tax credit.

"I came here to call attention to the need to do more to help families that are struggling with the cost of child care," Shaheen said.

The day before, it was a cattle farm where she and the U.S. agriculture secretary announced a federal grant to a local business. Her strategy, she said, is to continue to work as hard as she can to address the concerns that she hears from the people of New Hampshire.

"I think that's what people are looking for, and that's what I am going to continue to try to do," Shaheen said.

She says economic concerns are what she hears the most: student loans, child care costs and equal pay for women. Brown tends to talk more about national security at his town halls, and brushed past questions about the minimum wage and education.

Brown declined to be interviewed for this story. Observers in the state say his best hope of winning is a wave election. It's something Fergus Cullen says has happened in each of the past five off-year elections. He's a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party.

"New Hampshire is a swing state, and it has been very sensitive to what the national mood is over the last several election cycles," Cullen says. He's not convinced this will be a wave year.

"It's unclear whether this year is going to shape up like that. It doesn't feel like 2010 to me as of today," he says. "But the question is: Does Scott Brown just need a wave to get elected, or can he do it in a neutral political environment?"

Shaheen was elected six years ago with a boost from the candidacy of Barack Obama. Today, the president's approval rating in the state is just 38 percent. The question now is whether Shaheen will get caught up in his second-term backlash.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We are two months from a congressional election that, among other things, will determine control of the U.S. Senate. We'll be looking for signs of which way things will swing. And here could be one - in New Hampshire, a popular Democrat might be vulnerable to a Republican who won and then lost a Senate seat in another state. Here's Tamara Keith.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen is a former longtime New Hampshire Governor, finishing up her first term in the U.S. Senate. Polls consistently find that she's still personally popular, even after millions of dollars in attack ads run against her. And yet, a recent WMUR Granite State poll finds she has a race on her hands. Last month, that poll showed her on 12 points over her likely opponents - former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown. Now it's a statistical tie. In politics, it's dangerous to read too much into any one poll. But if Shaheen is in trouble, observers say it has more to do with the national dynamic than either her or Brown.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOWN HALL)

SCOTT BROWN: Let me just say hi to everybody. Good to see you.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hello.

BROWN: It's good to see you, thank you. Hi, how are you?

KEITH: When Brown walks into the Franklin VFW Hall, he shakes everyone's hand. There are about 40 people there for the town hall meeting - mostly senior citizens and mostly Brown supporters. One woman asks who he thinks will make the best Republican president. And Brown is ready with an answer.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOWN HALL)

BROWN: Anybody would be better than President Obama.

(LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)

BROWN: And I know that he's not up for reelection. I know you're shocked to hear that.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Amen.

BROWN: But guess what, his number one foot-soldier is - Senator Shaheen. She's up for reelection.

KEITH: Go to any of the states with races where Republicans hope to knock off Democratic incumbents and you'll hear a nearly identical message. The theory being President Obama is so unpopular, tying incumbents to him is a path to victory. Brown says the country's future rests on Republican control of the Senate. And his election would be part of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOWN HALL)

BROWN: And you have an opportunity to send a very powerful message, and what's that message?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: She's going to be gone.

BROWN: It's me. You send me - you send me back down to Washington, I guarantee the President and Harry Reid will not be happy.

KEITH: About 45 minutes after it began, the town hall is over. And Brown gets behind the wheel of his beat up green pickup truck.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR STARTING)

KEITH: Brown seemingly can't get enough contact with voters - doing 5K races, parades, town halls and closed-door meet-and-greets. And he takes that truck everywhere. It's closing in on 300,000 miles and was a big part of his brand when he ran for the Senate in Massachusetts - he won a special election in 2010, but was defeated three years later. Now in New Hampshire, Brown is trying to make this a national race. And Senator Jeanne Shaheen wants to keep it local.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: All right, kiddos, can we all say hello?

PRESCHOOL CLASS: Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: We ready to go eat lunch?

CLASS: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: All right, thank you so much for coming.

KEITH: Shaheen got her daily dose of cute at a preschool in Rochester. She was there to tout her bill to expand the childcare tax credit.

SENATOR JEANNE SHAHEEN: I came here to call attention to a need to do more to support families who are struggling with the costs of childcare.

KEITH: The day before it was a cattle farm, where she and the U.S. agriculture secretary announced a federal grant to a local businesses. Afterward, we ducked into a barn for a quick interview. Her strategy...

SHAHEEN: To continue to work as hard as I can to address the concerns that I hear from the people of New Hampshire. I think that's what people are looking for and that's what I'm going to continue to try and do.

KEITH: She says economic concerns are what she hears the most - student loans, childcare costs, equal pay for women. Brown tends to talk more about national security. And at his town halls, brushed past questions about the minimum wage and education. Brown declined to be interviewed for this story. Observers in the state say his best hope of winning is a wave election. It's something Fergus Cullen says has happened each of the past five off-year elections.

FERGUS CULLEN: New Hampshire is a swing state and it has been very sensitive to whatever the national mood is over the last several election cycles.

KEITH: Cullen is a former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party. And he's not convinced that it will be a wave year.

CULLEN: It's unclear whether this year is going to shape up like that - it doesn't feel like 2010 to me as of today. But, you know, the question is does Scott Brown just need a wave to get elected, or can he do it in sort of a neutral political environment?

KEITH: Shaheen was elected six years ago with a boost from the candidacy of Barack Obama. Today, his approval rating in the state is just 38 percent. The question now is whether Shaheen will get caught up in his second term backlash. Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.