N.H. Senate Race Illustrates The Dismal Climate for GOP

The Washington Post's David Broder speaks with Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) and his challenger former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D) about one of the nation's most competitive Senate races. Video by Ed O'Keefe/washingtonpost.com
By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 28, 2008

CONCORD, N.H. -- Any other year, it might have been a defining moment. At a debate for New Hampshire's U.S. Senate race held in a small town near here last week, a moderator relayed a question from a man called Skip, who wanted to know how the candidates would stand up to their party's leaders.

Sen. John E. Sununu, a Republican completing his first term, noted his effort to include more civil liberties protections in the reauthorized version of the USA Patriot Act. But Jeanne Shaheen, the Democratic former governor of the state, struggled to answer even after being pressed by the moderator, offering boilerplate criticisms of Sununu's record instead.

"That's two tries and no answer to the question!" Sununu crowed. He pressed the point the whole next day, ridiculing Shaheen's answer and saying that New Hampshire voters wanted members of Congress who would think for themselves.

This year, though, New Hampshire voters also appear to want change. It is a sign of how dismal the climate is for Republicans that Sununu, a rising GOP prospect at age 44, faces daunting odds despite a reputation as a capable, if not particularly charismatic, senator and a fiscally conservative profile that is a good fit for the state.

Republican Sen. John McCain, who has a deep bond with New Hampshire voters after two winning primary campaigns, has seen his standing drop sharply in recent weeks amid upset over the economy and widespread doubts about his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. And so far, Sununu has had trouble detaching his fate from McCain's, with polls in the state generally showing him trailing Shaheen by only a slightly smaller margin than McCain trails Obama.

"Neither candidate has much appeal for me, but I'm so tired of the Republican stranglehold that I'm going to vote for Shaheen," said Lois Andrews of Dover, a teacher turned corporate trainer who lost her job in April and who embodies the state's idiosyncrasy: She voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 yet supports replacing the income tax with a sales tax, a favorite of many on the right. "I've been independent before, but this time I'm going with the straight Democratic ticket," Andrews said.

Sununu, the son of former New Hampshire governor and George H.W. Bush chief of staff John Sununu, said in an interview that plenty of voters have told him they are voting for both him and Obama. Democrats also worry privately that some Obama voters, particularly younger ones, might leave the polling booth without bothering to vote in other races.

But for all the reputed sophistication and orneriness of New Hampshire voters, it is hard to detect widespread movement in polls or on the ground by voters who prefer Obama but want enough Republicans in Congress to provide a moderating check.

Ticket-splitting this year may be limited by Sununu's reluctance to make an explicit bid for such votes. Unlike Sen. Susan Collins (R), who is running for reelection in Maine, Sununu has not spoken out against automated phone calls the McCain campaign is making alleging that Obama was "working closely" with a "domestic terrorist," a reference to former radical William Ayers.

Two weeks ago, Sununu appeared with Palin in Salem and made a joke about Ayers. A week later, he stood smiling behind McCain at a Manchester rally as the crowd lustily booed every mention of Obama. In the interview, he stood by McCain's characterization of Obama's proposed tax increase for the wealthy as "socialist."

Obama "thinks government has a responsibility to take taxes from one person to give it to someone else," Sununu said. "There is a difference between raising taxes that you need to provide a strong national defense and raising taxes so that you can give that money to someone else. Taking money from one person or group or industry in order to give it to someone else is socialism."

University of New Hampshire political scientist Andrew Smith said it is hard for Sununu to make a case for divided government. "He can't be quite that blunt about it yet, because then he'd be saying, 'John McCain is going to lose, at least get me in there,' and that's not a powerful case to make for a ticket," Smith said.

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