There is no Senate race here in my home state of Vermont this year, and our lone House member Democrat Peter Welch appears poised to cruise to reelection against a slate of largely unknown candidates. However, there are important races going on either side of the Green Mountain state in upstate New York and in New Hampshire that are providing a fascinating and instructive window into the electoral dynamics that are driving House and Senate races across the country.
Next door in New Hampshire, there are two House contests and one Senate contest that collectively are being labelled “bellwether” races that should tell us something about the state of politics in the nation. In the state’s first congressional district, former congressman Republican Frank Guinta is trying to recapture the seat he won in the 2010 Tea Party “shellacking” that gave the Republicans control of the House. Guinta’s opponent is incumbent Democrat Carol Shea-Porter who beat Guinta in 2012, 49.8%-46%, with 4% going to the Libertarian candidate. Polling has been all over the map in this race, but on the whole it suggests the race is too close to call. Indeed, veteran handicapper Stu Rothenberg lists the New Hampshire race as one of the ten pure tossup House races in this election cycle.
Regionally NH-1 occupies the southeastern portion of the state. To the north and the west lies New Hampshire’s second congressional district, currently held by Democrat Ann Kuster who also defeated an incumbent Republican, Charlie Bass, in 2012, by 50.2%-45%, with the Libertarian candidate again taking about 4%. This time around, however, Kuster is being challenged by Marilinda Garcia, a veteran New Hampshire statehouse representative who as a woman and the daughter of an Italian immigrant mother and a father of Hispanic heritage is being touted as one of the Republican Party’s rising stars. This district historically leans a bit more Democratic than does NH-1, and Rothenberg currently has it “leaning Democrat”, but polls show Garcia within striking distance, with at least one – in the field in early October – putting her ahead of Kuster.
Finally, there is the marquee Senate matchup between Democratic incumbent Jean Shaheen and her Republican rival and former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown. Polls have Shaheen ahead by about 2.5%, but that margin has closed – Shaheen was leading in polls by more than 7% in mid-summer – and the most recent poll actually shows Brown clinging to a 1% lead. In contrast to the House races, the outcomes of which probably won’t affect Republican control of the House, the Brown-Shaheen contest is almost a must win for Democrats if the hope to retain their Senate majority.
Note that Obama took New Hampshire in both of his presidential races, but despite its increasingly blue shading, the state retains its reputation for containing a sizable voting bloc of flinty, anti-tax, libertarian leaning Republicans, which is why it provides such an interesting window into 2014’s political dynamics. The three Democratic incumbents have, for the most part, adopted a similar strategy – run as hard and as fast as they can away from the President and the Democratic Party, and instead emphasize their local roots, constituency service and their ability to get things done by working across the political aisle if necessary. In this vein a Shaheen television ad which I’ve seen repeatedly in recent days has her touting her success in bringing home the bacon in the form of local projects she has sponsored Meanwhile, her other ad tries to paint Brown as a carpetbagger in the hock to Wall St. interests.
In contrast, Republicans are trying to bind the incumbents to President Obama as closely as they can, as exemplified in this Karl Rove Crossroads-funded piece which just began airing this week in New Hampshire, courtesy of Rove’s decision to launch a $3 million ad buy in the Granite state..
One of the centerpieces of the Republican campaign is to remind voters of Shaheen’s vote in favor of Obamacare.
Rather than run from that vote, however, Shaheen is instead trying to turn it to her advantage by arguing that the policy is sound, even as the rollout was botched. Brown has also attacked her for being slow to recognize the threat posed by IS, while playing up his own national security credentials. As you might expect, the campaign has turned nasty in recent days, with Shaheen’s camp rolling out a questionable claim that Brown supported a Senate bill that would have allowed employers to deny women coverage for mammograms – a claim Politifact claims is “mostly false.” More recently, she has aired ads designed to create skepticism about Brown’s claims to be pro-choice. Needless to say, Brown is pushing back against these efforts to paint him as “anti-women”.
Not surprising, outside money is pouring into all three races. As is usually the case, the three incumbents have been able to outraise and outspend their challengers by substantial amounts, but Republicans are counting on support from the Republican congressional party committees as well as outside groups like Rove’s Crossroads PAC and the Club For Growth to overcome that funding deficit.
Ultimately this race may come down to the women’s vote. As the controversy over the mammogram and abortion ads indicate, Shaheen is hoping to focus on issues related to health care and reproductive rights in an attempt to capitalize on the traditional Democratic advantage with women. However, the recent focus on terrorism and IS has opened up the possibility that Brown might be able to attract support from so-called “security moms.” In this vein it is worth noting that Shaheen’s Republican Senate counterpart Kelly Ayotte took 55% of the women’s vote in the 2010 off-year election. Look for Brown to increasingly focus on foreign policy issues in the remaining weeks of the campaign. He still faces an uphill battle – Drew Linzer’s model still has Shaheen with a 69% probability of winning reelection – but the polls are trending in Brown’s direction. My read is that this remains Sheehan’s race to lose, but the combination of lower midterm turnout, increasing concern over foreign policy, and the influx of outside money is giving Brown a chance to overcome the carpetbagger stigma and pull off an upset.
In my next post I’ll look at New York’s 21st congressional district – the scene of a fascinating three-person debate this week.