CONCORD, N.H. (WOMENSENEWS)–For decades, women have hoped to reap the rewards of the fabled pipeline effect, in which female candidates would work their way through the political system to capture high office and power.
So the U.S. Senate race here in the Granite State has special significance: If Democrat Jeanne Shaheen is elected in November, she will become the first woman in U.S. history ever to serve both as a governor and a U.S. senator.
With Democrats holding a one-vote Senate majority, however, Republicans are determined to keep that from happening.
Even before the state’s September primary gave the Republican Senate nomination to Rep. John E. Sununu, the national GOP had pumped more than $1 million into an attack ad campaign aimed at Shaheen. In a state with just over 1 million people, the blitz of television and radio commercials focused especially on the signature issues of a centrist, three-term governor who is also a former teacher: health care and education.
“She vetoed our children’s future,” admonished one widely disseminated spot.
With GOP incumbent Sen. Bob Smith eliminated from the contest, Shaheen’s campaign manager said he was not surprised that the ad amplitude has continued to accelerate.
“It will get worse,” predicted Colin Van Ostern, Shaheen’s campaign spokesman, weeks before the election. “Just realistically, looking at the dynamics of where the money is, John Sununu is going to get plenty of support from some of the biggest special interests in Washington. We expect to see massive amounts of money tunneled into this state.”
Shaheen Has Narrow Edge
Still, the most recent poll figures from the University of New Hampshire Survey Research Center give Shaheen a narrow edge over Sununu. Among 590 likely voters in a poll completed Oct. 8, Shaheen was the choice for 47 percent of those surveyed and 43 percent indicated they would vote for her Republican challenger Sununu. The poll had a 4 percentage margin of error. In the same poll, however, Shaheen’s 15-point advantage among independents reflects a shift that could tip the election in her favor.
On Sununu’s side, Republican National Committee member Tom Rath of Concord said the boost from Washington helped “keep her from running away with this thing too early, and I think they have done a good job.” Rath acknowledged that the popular, 55-year-old governor has cultivated an image many voters find appealing.
“She’s kind of like Betty Crocker, and I mean that with respect,” Rath said.
Hoping to portray Shaheen in still another light, Julie Teer, communications director for the GOP state committee in New Hampshire, put out a press release just before Labor Day noting that Shaheen had won the endorsement of an “extremist” outfit called the National Organization for Women. In the same release, Teer declared, “It may just take a man in this U.S. Senate race to fight for what is important to women.”
Yet both sides–and both candidates–contend that gender is nowhere close to a central issue in the fight for this Senate seat. Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Research Center, said that though Republicans outnumber Democrats in New Hampshire, “this is not a conservative state. Gender is certainly not a handicap for Shaheen–she has been a very effective governor. In the general election, it may even be an advantage because women are more likely to vote for her.”
Both Democratic candidates for New Hampshire’s two House of Representatives slots are women, observed Alex Behrend of the state Democratic party. And Republican committee member Rath pointed out that, “Women have done very well in politics here. A couple of years ago we had a woman governor, a woman speaker of the [state] house, a woman [state] senate president and we were still open for business.”
For her part, Shaheen prefers to dwell on the non-biological differences between her and Sununu, a 38-year-old engineer who also enjoys wide name recognition because his father was both governor and chief of staff for former President George H. W. Bush.
“I think there is a lot at stake in this election,” Shaheen said. As one example, “You’re looking at someone who is going to support a woman’s right to choose against someone who wants to overturn that right.”
Shaheen Is Strongly Pro-Choice
Shaheen is strongly pro-choice. Sununu has earned a 100 percent approval rating from the National Right to Life Committee. Sununu also has vowed to work to overturn Roe v. Wade and to oppose any U.S. Supreme Court nominee who supports abortion.
Unlike Sununu, Shaheen opposes arctic drilling. Their one area of agreement may be on the need for an increased defense budget. But on health care, education and tax policy, they are worlds apart.
“This state is in a mess because of the governor,” Sununu said. “On all the issues that are important to New Hampshire–especially education, taxes and the budget–she has failed to provide any leadership at all.”
University of New Hampshire Survey Research Center director Andy Smith said his research has shown consistently that Shaheen “would have a difficult time beating Sununu–but it is within the realm of possibility. It would be a close race, a hard-fought race.”
Both candidates approach the November election with comfortable campaign bankrolls–in Shaheen’s case, about $1.5 million. Sununu’s war chest is close to that amount.
Democrats in New Hampshire welcomed substantial support from their own national party, as well as from organizations such as EMILY’s List, which has pinpointed the New Hampshire Senate race as a key election. Shaheen’s campaign manager pointed out that she was outspent nearly two-to-one when she ran for governor in 2000.
“But she wasn’t outworked, and she won because of a record of leadership,” he said. “We do expect that we’ll be outspent in November. But we won’t be outworked.”
Elizabeth Mehren is New England bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.
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