LOUDON, N.H. — Will the 2014 midterms prove the death-knell for the traditional New Hampshire town hall?
Former Massachusetts Sen. Scott P. Brown and his backers have been relentless in pushing the case that the Democratic rival he's trying to unseat, New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, has eschewed the traditional format in a way that dodges tough questions from ordinary Granite State voters about supporting President Barack Obama's agenda.
But should Shaheen and several other Democrats on the ballot in New Hampshire prevail, even in an unfavorable national climate, it might be grounds to reconsider the town hall format even for national candidates like those aiming to win the state's first-in-the-nation presidential primary.
Shaheen's argument is that town halls have the propensity to be taken over by outside interest groups. She brushed off the Republican criticism last week, after an official Senate and Department of Agriculture event at a local farm.
"These are out-of-state people who are supporting an out-of-state candidate ... and trying to take away the debate about the real issues in this race. The fact is I've done, you know, many town halls, a number of telephone town halls, which is a way to reach literally thousands of people, and we'll continue to do that," Shaheen told CQ Roll Call.
The "out-of-state candidate" is, of course, Brown. He moved north after losing his Senate seat in 2012 to Elizabeth Warren in neighboring Massachusetts. He was born in New Hampshire, but Shaheen is a well-known quantity here, as a three-term governor before she was elected to the Senate in 2008. And the Granite State is the kind of place, given its key role in the presidential nominating process, that attracts political operatives and candidates alike from far reaches of the country.
Shaheen held a number of smaller events and round tables last week, but an Aug. 18 event was getting all the buzz. A young GOP operative in a chicken costume was arrested for disorderly conduct at a parade in Londonderry. Police told local reporters that 23-year old Michael Zona was taken into custody for harassing both Shaheen and Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan.
"I believe Senator Jeanne Shaheen should be holding town halls and I have a First Amendment right to express that point of view," Zona told WMUR-TV. "I wasn't bothering anyone. I wasn't disturbing anyone. In fact, I got a good deal of encouragement from people along the parade route."
The chicken resurfaced Wednesday at this Loudon farm, but was not visible from the event itself, held at the end of a dirt road and blocked from access by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's security detail.
Shaheen pointedly declined to take the bait on the chicken's arrest when speaking with a gaggle of reporters outside a barn at the top of the hill overlooking the vast New Hampshire countryside north of Concord.
"I think voters will benefit from an honest exchange of views and a civil discourse in this election, and that's what I'm trying to promote," she said. "Again, I'll let you pundits decide on that. I think the voters are going to make a decision based on what they think is important to their lives and to the state."
Shaheen's Republican colleague, Sen. Kelly Ayotte wouldn't weigh in, either. Ayotte, who backs Brown, told CQ Roll Call she would not speculate on whether the debate about town halls would resonate come November.
But the New Hampshire GOP contends that the telephone town halls Shaheen boasts of conducting for voters shouldn't be counted in assessing her interaction with constituents. Operatives are circulating a Nashua Telegraph editorial critical of those forums.
"If anything, they are the coward's way out because they don't require close-quarters interaction or allow voters to read the non-verbal cues, which often provide far more information than the well-rehearsed non-answers that come out of a politician's mouth," the newspaper wrote.
But senators from both parties and all points on the political spectrum use the telephone town halls as a way of connecting with their constituents, particularly during periods when they need to remain in Washington.
Aside from the agriculture event, topics of discussion at Shaheen events included women's economic issues at a forum with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and a proposal to expand federal income tax credits for child care.
The Klobuchar event served as counter-programming for a more widely publicized Brown town hall with Arizona Sen. John McCain discussing foreign policy . The next night, Brown went to a VFW hall to discuss immigration.
There's a sense on the ground from analysts and elected officials that an expected move from Obama to expand a program granting deferred action for undocumented immigrants could affect the race. One Reagan-era Republican official predicted Shaheen could win in November by 8 or 10 points, though some observers were waiting on a poll sponsored by WMUR and the University of New Hampshire before getting into the prognosticating game.
That might have been a good strategy for the prognosticators, since that poll pointed to a tightening race — Shaheen led by just 2 points after holding a sizable lead all year.
The Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call rates this race Favored Democratic.
Correction: 10:32 a.m., Aug. 26 An earlier version of this post misspelled Gov. Maggie Hassan's name.
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