By John Toole
---- — U.S. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte are taking political hits this month via ads over the New Hampshire airwaves.
Shaheen, a Democrat, is up for re-election in 17 months. Ayotte, a Republican, is more than three years away.
Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, recently visited the state as he ponders a run for president, another election three years away.
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., getting early attention as a prospect for the 2016 campaign or potential running mate, attends a New Hampshire fundraiser for Shaheen later this week.
While pundits and columnists dismiss the newly re-elected Obama administration as so yesterday, the Granite State political machinery is cranking ahead of the next two — yes, two — election cycles.
Windham GOP Chairman Bruce Breton said he’s seen nothing like this.
“Not in my recollection, not in my 20 years in politics,” Breton said.
“Clearly, if you look at the trend lines of these tactics, which have been evolving since the Citizens United decision, the cycle has extremely lengthened,” Hampstead Democratic Party chairman Andrew Weir said last week.
That 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision was seen as a boon to special interest financing for political campaigns. The ruling prohibited the Federal Election Commission from restricting independent expenditures on behalf of politicians by corporations, unions and other groups.
From Weir’s perspective in Hampstead, it’s pressured politicians into constant campaign mode.
“This is so troubling to our representatives, who have to spend so much time raising money,” he said.
Shaheen appealed to supporters for money as Citizens for a Strong New Hampshire urged conservatives to let her know they can’t afford the health-care reforms pushed by President Obama she supported.
Shaheen’s response to loyal followers: “I saw these same attacks in 2008 and we beat them.” She asked them to donate at least $5 to help.
Special interests change the system
Ayotte is fending off criticism of her own for a vote against a White House-backed gun control plan.
Aide Jeff Grappone fired back at New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, after the mayors’ group he co-chairs put out another TV ad attacking her vote.
“Sen. Ayotte won’t be bullied by a billionaire mayor or anyone else — she casts votes for New Hampshire based on what she thinks is right,” Grappone said.
Breton agrees the influence game is what’s changing the nature of New Hampshire politics.
“This is not really the campaigns, it’s the pro and con groups, the special interest groups,” Breton said. “The mayors, I guess it’s their right, put out the negative ad about Kelly. But you talk to the average person on the street and they think she’s doing a good job.”
Weir laments what’s happening.
“It’s just attack, attack, attack,” he said. “I want people focused on governing.”
There are other factors besides money and special interests.
“All the media coverage is a distraction,” Weir said. “Everybody is looking for a sound bite.”
“It’s the way politics is now with all the media,” he said. “Everybody wants to get the word out.”
There’s some long-term strategy though, too.
“Republicans have to look at Shaheen and say, ‘No matter who our nominee is, we have to find a way to take her down a peg or two for our nominee to have a chance,’” said Dante Scala, University of New Hampshire political science professor. “That’s why you’re seeing ads this early against Shaheen.”
Ayotte’s vote on gun control, meanwhile, is something her foes see as an opportunity to try to exploit.
“They see this as something that can change voters’ perception in a way nothing else has so far,” Scala said. “The sense is, ‘If we can put a dent in her numbers now, that will make a difference down the road.’”
The attacks on Ayotte and Shaheen may seem premature, but they don’t get the early-bird campaign award.
Enthusiasm builds for 2016
That goes to former state Democratic Party Chris Spirou for his move back in February to draft Hillary Clinton as a candidate for president in 2016.
But certainly Republicans are just as enthusiastic about the wide-open 2016 race without an incumbent president on the ballot.
“This race will be very interesting,” Breton said.
The conservative Cornerstone Action extended an invitation to up-and-coming Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas to speak at a fall banquet. Paul spoke at a GOP fundraiser last month.
Polling by the University of New Hampshire and New England College in Henniker give Clinton a big lead in the 2016 Democratic field.
NEC had her at 65 percent with Vice President Joe Biden at 10 percent. UNH had Clinton at 61 percent, Biden at 7 percent.
Others showing up in early polls include New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Virginia Sen. Mark Warner.
On the Republican side, UNH polling showed no clear front-runner. Paul and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio tied at the top with 15 percent, but New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan were in double figures, too, at 11 percent.
NEC had Rubio on top at 17 percent, but the others tightly clustered behind him, along with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Ben Tafoya, an assistant professor of political science who oversees polling for NEC, said the results show two interesting, but totally different narratives.
“On the Republican side, the race is totally up for grabs,” Tafoya said. “On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is way out front.”
The GOP is where the real action is now.
“There’s no national successor to Mitt Romney,” Scala said. “There are a lot of people without national name recognition.”
On the Democratic side, there’s still a waiting game on Clinton’s decision.
That’s why names like Gillibrand and O’Malley are circulating, Scala said.
“If Hillary doesn’t go,” he said, “then it’s wide open on that side.”
People recognize it’s fairly early to start talking about the presidential contest, but interest seems strong, Tafoya said.
Tafoya acknowledges the public’s weariness with presidential politics, given Obama’s inauguration after the last round in January.
“People have some sort of fatigue with the presidential campaigning,” he said.
But he expects that will fade after the next election cycle, which he said has plenty of action to keep people interested with races for governor, the U.S. Senate and the Legislature.
Down the ballot speculation for 2014 has the Sununu family once again figuring in a GOP comeback. This time Executive Councilor Chris Sununu is being discussed as a potential candidate for Congress or governor.
Former Congressman Jeb Bradley, the GOP’s New Hampshire Senate majority leader, is looking at the U.S. Senate among his options.
Republican former Congressman Frank Guinta is a possibility for a rematch next year with Democratic Congressman Carol Shea-Porter in the 1st District that includes Derry and Londonderry.
William O’Brien, the controversial former New Hampshire House speaker, is exploring a run against Democratic Congressman Ann McLane Kuster in the 2nd District that includes Salem and Windham next year.
Democrat Gov. Maggie Hassan, despite strong approval ratings now, will get a re-election challenge.
Kevin Smith, GOP primary runner-up in 2012, is looking at the race. Other possibilities include Sununu; John Stephen, who lost to former Gov. John Lynch in 2010; and state Sen. Chuck Morse of Salem, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee overseeing state budget matters.
“No one’s announced,” Breton said. “But the Republicans always have a good group of candidates to take the corner office.”
Scala, looking to 2014, sees Hassan and Shaheen as the least vulnerable right now, Shea-Porter the most.
“She’s in a district that leans a little bit Republican,” he said, “she faces a district that tilts a little bit away from her.”