The tide seems to be turning in favor of former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D).
When she first faced then-Rep. John Sununu (R) for a Senate seat in 2002, President Bush was popular and the Republican brand was soaring. In what was called the most competitive Senate race in the country that cycle, Sununu defeated Shaheen by 4 points.
Six years later, the climate is different for Republicans in New Hampshire. Granite State voters backed a Democrat for president in 2004 and for both House seats in 2006.
In a June 4 interview in Washington, D.C., Shaheen discussed her belief that the changed political climate will have a positive impact on her campaign this cycle.
I think theres a major change in the environment in 2008 than
in 2002, she said. In 2006, we had a real Democratic sweep in New Hampshire. The demographics of the state have changed, so its voting more Democratic.
University of New Hampshire Survey Center Director Andrew Smith also said hes seen the states electorate change: About 25 percent of voters have turned over since 2002 and they are much more likely to be Democratic.
Smith projects that in 2008, 41 percent of likely voters who show up to the polls will be Democrats, while about 37 percent will be Republicans and the remaining 22 percent will be swing voters.
A 4 percent advantage is significant, but its not enough that a campaign wont matter, Smith said. A good campaign can close that gap.
And perhaps as a result, recent head-to-head polls from surveys across the state show Shaheen with a sizable lead over Sununu often in the low double digits.
Republicans have maintained that in 2002, Shaheen was often polling ahead of Sununu until the end of the race. They say the contest will tighten as voters start to pay attention later this year.
Shaheen dismissed that assessment of the 2002 race, saying Sununu was ahead of her for most of that campaign.
Well first of all, thats just not an accurate assessment of 2002, Shaheen said. John Sununu was polling ahead of me in 2002. … Revisionist history aside, they cant change the facts of that race in 2002.
UNH polling data showed that, in 2002, Sununu maintained an advantage until June. But in the last few months following his victorious primary against a Republican incumbent in September, Shaheen pulled ahead by small margins.
Smith recalled how he saw Sununus campaign go from down a few points to leading Shaheen by a few points over the course of the weekend before the election.
It was perhaps because of this close race in 2002 that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee made such an effort to lure Shaheen to run again in 2008, despite a slew of Democrats already running for the seat last August.
Following her failed Senate bid, Shaheen served as co-chairwoman for Sen. John Kerrys (D-Mass.) presidential campaign. When Democrats approached her about running for Senate again, Shaheen held the top post at the Institute of Politics at Harvard Universitys Kennedy School of Government.
One of the things that made the decision to run more challenging than it might have been was because I so much enjoyed the job that I had, she said. I had regular paychecks and retirement benefits, and lots of benefits that I had not enjoyed. And then I had my weekends off.
Given that Shaheen has been out of the public spotlight for some time, Republicans plan to target her gubernatorial record once again.
Sununu campaign spokeswoman Julie Teer said in a statement that voters will choose their Senator based on their respective records in office.
John Sununu has been an effective leader, an independent voice and voted in the Senate with New Hampshire 100 percent of the time, Teer said. In stark contrast, Jeanne Shaheen had the chance to lead New Hampshire as Governor for six years and failed on issue after issue. Voters will once again reject her same old, tired partisan attack politics.
New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman Fergus Cullen also sees the 2008 GOP ballot as much stronger than that from 2006.
First of all, he pointed out, Republicans have a strong top of the ticket compared to 2006, when an noncompetitive gubernatorial race topped the ballot. Secondly, he said, the elimination of straight-ticket voting will help his party come November.
Cullen said that voters old and new will be educated on Shaheens record as governor. He said that being out of the public eye can only hurt her chances with new voters to the state who have yet to learn about her tenure in office.
That whole new electorate doesnt know that Jeanne Shaheen took the pledge, then reneged on the pledge … then she introduced a 2.5 percent sales tax, Cullen said.