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Sunday, July 20, 2014

NH candidates face dreaded dog days of summer

With the Fourth of July well behind us and only 51 days until the September New Hampshire primary election, candidates of all stripes now come face to face with these four dreaded words:

Dog days of summer. ...

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With the Fourth of July well behind us and only 51 days until the September New Hampshire primary election, candidates of all stripes now come face to face with these four dreaded words:

Dog days of summer.

While it affects each race and hopeful differently, the elemental struggle is the same.

How does one get the attention of likely voters who are far more focused on their vacation itineraries, their lawn upkeep and their children’s play schedules than they are on how to mark their ballots Sept. 9?

“For those candidates running with low-name recognition, this can be an awfully frustrating time because they’ve got two hurdles,” said Dante Scala, political science department chairman at the University of New Hampshire.

“First, you’ve got to get voters to know you, and then and only then, you have to make the sale.”

Greg Moore, state director of the fiscally conservative interest group Americans for Prosperity, saw this firsthand in 2008 while managing the campaign of Republican congressional candidate John Stephen in a primary against former congressman Jeb Bradley.

“Your first battle really is running against undecided or unknown and not your opponent,” Moore said. “And unless you’ve got a few million dollars lying around to spend, it’s very difficult during these weeks to build that personal identity with voters.”

“It’s the single biggest reason why so many incumbents here and across the country prevail in primaries.”

And primary voters can be the most difficult bloc to win over, because they are more engaged and ideologically strident than average citizens. They are less likely to support a candidate with whom they have a few philosophical differences, even if the candidate stands the best chance of winning in the general election.

“Electability in a primary is often not a winning argument,” Scala said. “Telling voters, ‘Nominate me because I can beat so and so’ doesn’t work if they disagree with you on hot-button issues like abortion, guns or taxes.”

While the independents who make up 44 percent of registered votes are the ultimate prize in November, their role in this primary will be marginal at best.

“My guess is independents will make up only about 15 percent of those who vote in the Republican primary,” said Mike Dennehy, GOP strategist and state spokesman for a political action committee backing Republican Senate hopeful Jim Rubens.

“Should you ignore them? Of course not, but base Republican voters ultimately will decide these races.”

“You have to reach out in ways that are interesting and fun,” said Jeff Woodburn, a Democratic state senator and former chairman of the Democratic Party.

For Woodburn, it’s been his “Ice Cream Tour,” a 14-hour marathon he spent Thursday making stops at half a dozen dairy bars throughout his North Country district.

“All of this has its downsides,” Woodburn said. “Up here, I’m more likely to meet people from Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine visiting the mountains than I am voters from Berlin, Colebrook or Groveton.

“You have to figure out ways to get in front of as many people as possible at one time, and trust me: This time of year, that’s really hard.”

Here’s a brief summary of what candidates in the state’s major races need to overcome through New Hampshire’s notoriously short summer season.

All four Democratic incumbents have no primary opponent, but there’s still plenty of prep work they must do now to win in November.

U.S. Senate

Republican Scott Brown, of Rye: His three years in the Senate representing Massachusetts contributes to the fact that most voters recognize the name.

But beyond that, what do they know about him? That’s Brown’s No. 1 job.

Shaheen and the Democratic Party has been working for months trying to define Brown as an opportunistic carpetbagger who can’t be trusted.

As the overwhelming early GOP favorite, Brown also has to strike that balance presenting himself as a social moderate who can defeat Shaheen, but also as a fiscal conservative whom the GOP core can embrace.

Brown said retail campaigning here remains a challenging art form that still makes a difference in an age when voters can learn more about a candidate from their iPhones than they ever can at a downtown meet-and-greet.

“I am running a grass-roots campaign, bringing it to businesses, ballparks, taxpayer meetings, hanging outside the Market Basket. I love that stuff,” Brown said.

Republican Bob Smith, of Tuftonboro: The former GOP senator from New Hampshire has to reacquaint himself with party activists, having lived in Florida for the past decade and not leaving on the best of terms.

After his 2002 primary defeat, Smith didn’t endorse senator-to-be John E. Sununu and then embraced Democrat John Kerry for president in 2004.

Republican Jim Rubens, of Hanover: As the least-known of the bunch and not on a statewide ballot for the past 16 years, Rubens will have to keep up his barnstorming campaign across the state, selling himself as the non-career politician with innovative solutions.

Incumbent Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, of Madbury: Known by nearly everyone, Shaheen is popular but has yet to close her own deal, with roughly 50 percent in most polls saying they’d choose her over any Republican rival.

“Anybody spending five minutes in this business will tell you an incumbent at 50 percent or below by this stage is, by definition, vulnerable,” said Moore, a partisan Republican.

Shaheen will no doubt mark her time pointing to victories she’s achieved through constituent service and securing federal money for the new federal prison being built in Berlin and the Memorial Bridge in Portsmouth.

“She’s set up very well for the fall, and not because of her lead in the polls, but the time she has now to improve her brand,” Scala said.

Governor

Republican Walt Havenstein, of Alton: The retired defense contractor executive started his first run for public office with plenty of advantages: personal wealth, no baggage of a public voting record and support of the power elite in the state GOP.

The Republican Governors Association was impressed enough with his potential to take sides and embrace him.

After some early controversy and self-inflicted gaffes, Havenstein needs to go beyond the talking points to reveal an appealing vision for how he would lead the state to better times.

Republican Andrew Hemingway, of Bristol: Barely old enough to hold the office, Hemingway has a wealth of experience in primary political organizing that could make him a dangerous adversary.

As the only anti-abortion candidate, Hemingway has to build on that core group, and his dramatic proposals on expanding gambling and revamping business taxes already have set him apart.

The key question is whether Hemingway can raise enough money to compete with the establishment’s war chest and a GOP opponent whose personal worth is likely in the eight figures.

Democratic incumbent Maggie Hassan, of Exeter: She profits from public policy wins from a politically divided Legislature and a long tradition of giving governors a second term.

Hassan would be smart to spend at least some of this extended honeymoon drawing a vivid policy picture on how the next two years would be if voters punched her ticket.

2nd Congressional District

Republican Gary Lambert, of Nashua: The former state senator has a compelling personal and political story. As a recently retired Marine colonel and first-time candidate, Lambert won a seat that Democrats had held for more than 90 years.

Lambert needs to keep telling that tale, because fewer than 10 percent of district voters know who he is. His pledge for self-imposed term limits and his rejection of congressional pension and health care benefits is an appealing invite for voters who loathe congressional trappings of power.

Republican Marilinda
Garcia, of Salem: This three-term state representative is young, articulate and has been slowly moving up the GOP conservative food chain readying herself for this tall assignment.

Many right-wing activists are getting behind her because of Lambert’s support of government initiatives to combat climate change.

But Garcia first must fill out her own policy platform so Republican voters can imagine her representing the 2nd District on Capitol Hill.

Democratic incumbent Annie Kuster, of Hopkinton: The first re-election for any House member is often the toughest, and this is no exception for Kuster, who stumbled out of the gate early in office. She was late paying her local property taxes and started out sounding too much like a President Obama cheerleader and less of an independent voice for the state’s westernmost voters.

Kuster has recovered in recent months, yet only a third of likely voters view her favorably.

1st Congressional District

Republican Frank Guinta, of Manchester: As the former congressman seeking a third rematch with incumbent Carol Shea-Porter, Guinta has had to resist the temptation to start the mud wrestling early.

Instead, Guinta continues to spend his time touring the district and racking up name endorsements to give voters the impression that this primary is all but over.

Republican Dan Innis, of Portsmouth: The former University of New Hampshire business school dean makes a good first impression and has gotten national coverage seeking to be the first openly gay person elected to major office in the state.

Innis has to use issues that appeal to base voters, especially those that draw a contrast to the better-known, better-financed Guinta.

His criticism of Guinta for giving government too much authority to invade personal privacy in the name of national security is a good example.

Fair or not, many primary voters will only give Innis a longer look if it appears that he’ll have enough money to go the distance.

Democratic incumbent Carol Shea-Porter, of Rochester: Polls have shown the Guinta matchup flip back and forth over the past 10 months.

To avoid a repeat of her 2010 re-election loss to Guinta, Shea-Porter needs to pivot early and aim her campaign to win over independent voters who are the most cynical about the gridlock and partisan sniping in Washington.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at
321-7040 or klandrigan@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Landrigan on Twitter (@Klandrigan).