Some contests feature the proverbial 800-pound gorilla, and the race for the Democratic Senate nod in New Hampshire is no different. The only question is if the gorilla wants back into the center ring.
Whenever Democrats talk about targeting first-term Sen. John Sununu (R), inevitably someone mentions former Granite State Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D).
Her name often comes before that of Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand (D) and Katrina Swett (D), who are running. Or Jay Buckey (D), the former astronaut who just announced his candidacy.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was more than happy to trumpet the news that Shaheen led Sununu, to whom she lost by 4 points in 2002, in a recent poll.
The independent American Research Group survey showed voters preferred Shaheen 44 percent to 34 percent. ARG surveyed 551 registered voters March 25-28; the poll had a 4.2-point margin of error.
Shaheen hasn’t said no definitively, but the longer the Harvard University Institute of Politics director remains silent, the harder she could make things for Swett, Marchand and Buckey.
“This is going to be her choice,” said Ray Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. “She’s not going to discourage anyone [from running] but she had the luxury of making that choice when it’s convenient for her.”
A Shaheen spokesman would only say that she has yet to make a decision. As to whether she is contractually bound to Harvard, the spokesman, Esten Perez, said that her contract was not for any set amount of time.
National Democrats also seem unconcerned.
They point out that in a small state such as New Hampshire, someone with the name identification of a former three-term governor can wait much longer than other challengers.
However, the National Republican Senatorial Committee says the continued “will she, won’t she” talk about Shaheen proves Sununu is less vulnerable than the DSCC would have people believe.
“It’s not at all surprising that the Democrats in New Hampshire are having significant trouble recruiting a top-tier candidate to run against Sen. Sununu — he is a strong candidate who fights for his constituents,” said NRSC spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher. “I think Shaheen’s silence in this race speaks volumes.”
For their part, Swett and Marchand said the drama surrounding Shaheen has not dampened their nascent campaigns one bit.
“I don’t think that at all,” said Swett, who ran for Congress in 2002 and is the daughter of Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) and the wife of former Rep. Dick Swett (D-N.H.). “The experience I’ve had thus far is that people are very excited about my candidacy … people say ‘We really think you can win this.’”
Swett said that while the totals are not yet ready for the April 15 Federal Election Commission filing deadline, she has raised about $450,000 in nine weeks.
She said she is going full force and finds most party activists are ready.
In working the grass roots and talking to current and former party leaders, “a small number say it’s early and are taking a wait-and-see approach, but an awful lot of them are ready to commit,” Swett said.
“I think it’s probably true that maybe some of the folks at the DSCC do, as I do, have a tremendous amount of respect for her and want her to give it close consideration, but I do not feel frustrated,” Swett said. Nor does she believe that national party leaders are just waiting around for Shaheen to get in with no thought toward another candidate.
Marchand said his campaign also is moving forward unhindered by Shaheen’s indecision.
“We are very pleased with the early results,” Marchand said. “We reached our early fundraising goals for the first quarter, including a particularly successful last several weeks.
“We’ve also begun lining up … impressive early political support, reflecting the belief in-state that I represent our best chance of victory in November of 2008,” the Portsmouth mayor added.
“We are in the process of further expanding our staff, and our Internet presence is quickly growing. We’ll absolutely have the resources we need to fund what … will be an extremely comprehensive, advanced grass-roots campaign.”
He’ll report on April 15 raising in the ballpark of $100,000 in basically four and a half weeks. He hopes to roll out political endorsements by month’s end.
“One of the dynamics is that folks on both sides of the aisle see this as an extremely important and competitive race,” Marchand said. “There’s an intensity to this 2008 Senate election [irrespective of what Shaheen does] that is unique given that we’re about a year and a half out still.”
Sununu knows he is a top DSCC target and likely will show April 15 that he had a good fundraising quarter.
He began the year with about $738,000 in the bank.
While the current Democratic crop said Shaheen’s indecision has not affected their plans, that largely assumes that she ultimately will not run.
“People would have to make that decision [to step aside] if she chooses to run,” Buckley said.
Swett said that she likely would drop her candidacy if Shaheen decides she wants a rematch with Sununu.
“People understand that she is a good friend of mine,” Swett said.
“From what I hear she’s leaning against running, but she knows that I am very loyal to her,” Swett said. “I would be very strongly inclined to step aside and support her.”
“If Gov. Shaheen were to enter the race, I would seek to help her,” Marchand said. “I think there are many folks who have [already] expressed significant interest in the campaign and when they are aware of that information, it makes them even more inclined to get involved [with me] early on.”