Jeanne Shaheen

LEBANON, N.H. (WOMENSENEWS)–A sharp jump in Democratic voter rolls in New Hampshire and the Bush administration’s low popularity are giving Jeanne Shaheen a strong second shot at besting Republican Sen. John Sununu.

“It’s Jeanne Shaheen’s to lose,” said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, after viewing recent poll data showing Shaheen between 4 and 14 points ahead.

The two ran against each other in 2002, when Sununu won by four percentage points.

“It’s hard to even remember how different it was six years ago,” says Sally Wilkins, co-owner of a lumber mill in Milford, N.H., who voted for Shaheen in 2002 and plans to do so again. “That election was all about whether or not Shaheen was pro-tax and whether or not Bush and Baby Sununu could keep us safe.”

(Sununu is sometimes dubbed “baby” here because his father was governor of New Hampshire from 1983 through 1989 and left to become White House chief of staff under President George H.W. Bush.)

A University of New Hampshire survey conducted in mid-September gave Shaheen a four-point edge over Sununu. A poll conducted by St. Anselm College during the last week in September gave her a wider, 14-point lead.

Another, conducted in early October by the Concord Monitor, gave female voters major credit for a 13-point lead that it found. While men are evenly split–at 46 percent for either candidate–that poll found women are breaking for Shaheen by an eight-point margin; 54 percent to 46 percent.

If Shaheen wins she’ll be New Hampshire’s first female U.S. senator and her race represents the most likely chance for women to increase their numbers in the Senate during this election cycle.

Running an Anti-Bush Ticket

Like other Democratic challengers this year, Shaheen has emphasized her opponent’s close ties to Bush administration economic policies and the president himself.

One of her ads–available for downloading on her campaign’s Web site–shows Bush and Sununu walking side by side to the strains of a male vocalist’s rendition of the 1970s “Where You Lead” love song by Carole King. Another, aired on TV and paid for by the Democratic Senatorial Committee, features a headshot of George Bush that morphs into Sununu.

“These ads are devastating,” says Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College in Hanover. “Sununu is trying to play the hand he was dealt as well as he can, and he’s been astute in trying to distance himself and assert his independence, but he’s in an extremely difficult position.”

In recent days, the Sununu camp has fired back with ads showing Shaheen’s own ties to Bush. One shows her pledging her support to the administration during the build-up to the war in Iraq. A radio spot offers the same reminder. Both versions wind up with Shaheen saying, over and over, “I stand with President Bush.”

“It’s a successful narrative that’s being run all over the country,” says Wayne Lesperance, an associate professor of political science at New England College in Henniker, referring to attacks that link a candidate to Bush. “It remains to be seen if they could actually work for a Republican.”

Sununu’s policy posture is libertarian conservative. He’s anti-choice, supports tax credits to purchase health care and previously has supported efforts to privatize Social Security.

But he is not in lock-step with the Bush White House. He fought aspects of the Patriot Act as civil liberty violations and helped defeat a Republican-sponsored energy bill.

Hoped to Move from Statehouse to Senate

Shaheen, a former three-term governor, decided not to seek re-election in 2002 in order to run for the state’s open Senate seat but lost to Sununu.

She is strong proponent of a woman’s right to choose, supports universal health care and, as governor, signed equal pay legislation into state law.

New Hampshire races are famously decided by undeclared, independent voters who comprise 42 percent of the electorate.

But in the surge in voter registration leading up to the state’s January primary Democrats picked up 37,485 voters while Republicans added 14,867, according to the New Hampshire secretary of state’s office. Unaffiliated voters dropped by 17,436.

“There couldn’t be a worse year for Sununu to seek re-election,” says Dartmouth’s Fowler. “Obama’s voter registration drives have boosted the number of registered Democrats, while the economy has changed the landscape dramatically.”

The foreclosure crisis is not as severe here as it is in other parts of the country because many homeowners’ mortgages are with small, local banks that have conservative lending practices.

But residents are certainly concerned about falling home values, wildly fluctuating gasoline prices and the soaring cost of home heating fuels.

“Six years ago, we would have sold maybe 60 pellet stoves,” says Ken Naylor, sales manager of The Stove Shoppe in Wyndham. Now Naylor says the store has either sold or taken orders for 570, all placed before the first frost as customers decided to bank on burning more wood than oil this winter. “We’re all sitting at home trying to keep the furnace from coming on.”

Flatlanders Could Give Her a Lift

Another factor favoring Shaheen this time is a recent influx from the Greater Boston area of more socially liberal “flatlanders,” as newcomers here are often called. A University of New Hampshire survey released last week found 208,000 new residents since 2000, resulting in a potential shift of one-third of approximately 885,000 registered voters.

But the fact that Sununu remains anywhere near striking distance of re-election indicates how many Granite State residents–old and new–consider “tax” a four-letter word.

New Hampshire has no broad-based sales tax and is one of only seven states without an income tax.

Like her predecessors in the governor’s office, Shaheen took “The Pledge” in 1996 and again in 1998, agreeing to veto any legislation that included a broad-based tax.

By 2000, however, she said she could no longer bring herself to rule out that option, and became the first gubernatorial candidate to win without promising to veto any and all attempts to implement a broad-based tax. During her last term, she proposed a 2.5 percent sales tax as a way to lower property taxes and fund schools. The effort was defeated by the Legislature and became fodder for Sununu’s 2002 campaign.

“It’s never easy to tell people something they don’t want to hear,” Shaheen said at the time.

Now voters are hearing about it again and again, as Sununu tries to stoke suspicions about what she could do if she’s let loose in the Senate chamber.

In their debates, he has assailed her “flip flopping” on taxes and warns voters that she is a typical Democrat who will increase spending and bend to the political winds of change.

After all the nastiness–the final debate on Tuesday featured nonstop heated exchanges–Nancy Dunbar, a retiree from Amherst, told Women’s eNews that she’s ready for the people to decide.

“I just want to get to Election Day without anything major happening,” says Dunbar, a Shaheen supporter. “It’s been crazy enough the past few weeks. I just want to get in there and vote.”

Jane Costello is a freelance writer and flatlander who moved to New Hampshire in August.

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