People Power?

Shea-Porter’s Formula Will Be Tested in Re-election Bid

Posted November 14, 2007 at 6:28pm

If New Hampshire is the state for retail politics, then the 1st Congressional district went on sale in 2006. Freshman Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D) won the 1st district race by a little more than 5,000 votes last November, spending less than a third of the $1 million that then-Rep. Jeb Bradley (R) spent on his unsuccessful re-election bid.

She also pulled an upset in the Democratic primary, beating state House Minority Leader Jim Craig, the favorite of national Democratic leaders, by 20 points despite being heavily outspent.

While money helps, it doesn’t buy the Granite State, known for its first-in-the-nation presidential primary and its grass-roots politics. It’s a state where many voters have had multiple presidential candidates knock on their doors, and no one knows that better than Shea-Porter.

“I think what Carol did was she was smart enough to go around and meet all the people,” said Strafford County Democratic Committee Chairwoman Joan Ashwell. “She really did spend months going out and making contacts in the 1st Congressional district.”

Shea-Porter’s campaign tactics heavily rely on personal meetings and less so on traditional means like television buys. Her quirky campaign and grass-roots fanatics attracted even more attention to her candidacy.

One example of that quirky behavior is the fact that Shea-Porter won’t release her exact birth date — only the month and year. Her office says that’s because New Hampshire residents have an independent streak, and the Congresswoman believes in her right to privacy.

“I think there’s been a huge drive here by the Republican Party to paint her as some crazy woman, but she’s anything but,” said Ashwell. “She’s one of those very practical people.”

The question now that she is an incumbent Member of Congress is whether the same unconventional tactics will work now that two prominent Republicans, including Bradley, are working to defeat her. She already has told the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which did not help her in the previous cycle, that she does not want to be in its “Frontline” program for endangered incumbents.

Some New Hampshire voters, including Bradley, insist Shea-Porter took advantage of a “perfect storm” in 2006 and that the nominally Republican district can be taken back in 2008.

The latest Granite State Poll showed Shea-Porter with a decline in favorability ratings from a high of 42 percent in April to 33 percent in September. The poll sampled 230 1st district voters for a week in mid-September and had a margin of error of 6.1 points.

The University of New Hampshire survey also asked about Bradley, who showed a favorability rating of 42 percent. The same poll, however, showed Bradley with a double-digit lead over Shea-Porter in the final days of the campaign in November 2006.

Because of polls like those, Republicans across the state were stunned on election night. Most were worried about then-Rep. Charles Bass (R) in the 2nd district, who was considered more vulnerable and also wound up losing.

“We didn’t think that [Shea-Porter] did that well,” Strafford County Republican Committee Chairwoman Phyllis Woods said. “We really thought that she would be fairly easy to beat. We were just really stunned. I think we just really thought that Charlie Bass was much more vulnerable, but this really threw us back on our heels.”

Bradley said it was very soon after that he decided he would run to get his seat back — and so he has not stopped campaigning since Election Day.

“Jeb has never been one to leave anything to chance,” said Wayne MacDonald, vice chairman of the state Republican Party. “I’m sure he’s got his donor list and is keeping in touch with the local chairs. I’m sure he’s working to keep his organization together.”

According to Republicans, Bradley has been working the party picnic circuit, much as Shea-Porter did as a novice candidate last year, as well as stumping for GOP candidates in special elections throughout the district.

“Everywhere I went last year, Jeb was there,” MacDonald added. “He’s certainly doing his homework.”

But before Bradley tries to take his seat back from Shea-Porter, he must first face some familiar competition. Former state Health Commissioner John Stephen, who ran against Bradley in the House GOP primary in 2002, is having his second go at the seat.

In that 2002 primary, eight Republican candidates split the vote in a high-turnout primary. This cycle, the 1st district Republican primary is on course to be the only contested race on the GOP ballot.

“All the conservatives really split that vote, and [Bradley] won it as more of a moderate,” Woods said. “Now we’ll have something that’s far more indicative of where Republicans are in this primary.”

“I think there was a cross of the political spectrum [in 2002] and I was by no means the only so-called moderate,” Bradley said. “There were eight of us and I managed to come out on top.”

The two Republicans have known each other since the mid-1990s, and Bradley disagrees with the idea that his politics are to the left of Stephen’s.

“I suspect there will be an awful lot of issues that we’ll agree on,” Bradley said. “I don’t know if it’s fair to ask me where I am on the spectrum compared to that. I look forward to having the debate. I suspected that there would be a primary.”

Stephen points to his experience running the state’s health department as a prime example of why he’s for less government, in particular the Medicare Part D bill that Bradley supported.

“All I’ve seen is my hands tied by federal regulation,” he said. “I’m not afraid to make a decision. You don’t say one thing and then do something else down here in Washington.”

But for either Republican, taking on Shea-Porter in the general election will prove to be a challenge. The proof might just be in the demographics of the district.

According to Carroll County Republican Chairman Henry Mock, Republicans lost simply because they stayed home in 2006.

“The reason we lost our state is last year is Republicans did not go to vote,” Mock said. “They were just not into it.”

Mock, who says he has known both Stephen and Bradley for at least 15 years, said independent voters now dominate the district.

“We have to recognize that the Republican Party was at one point the major party of this state and this district,” Mock said. “That’s no longer the case. The independents are now the major party, if you want to call them a party.”

Shea-Porter’s own Strafford County has been traditionally Republican, but the party has experienced significant losses there in recent years.

In a state House with 400 Members, 38 of them represent parts of Strafford County. But in less than five years, Republicans went from holding 16 out of 38 state House seats in Strafford to having just one.

“I think the Republicans were shocked when they lost,” Ashwell said. “I know from people who know Jeb Bradley that they never saw it coming. Then again, they never saw Strafford County coming either.”