By John Toole
---- — A year out from the 2014 mid-term Election Day, Democrats in New Hampshire are eager to get to the ballot box.
Gov. Maggie Hassan and U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, both Democrats, have high approval ratings and wide leads over potential Republican challengers.
The polls are less clear about the prospects in the state’s two Congressional districts, but Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., is showing early strength.
Democrats aren’t cocky, however.
“None of us are being complacent,” Danville Democratic chairman Sarah Gannon-Weston said.
“There is going to be a lot of work.
The Republican field atop the ballot is less settled, and questions about primaries and primary outcomes abound.
Some of the questions are about whether the former senator from Massachusetts, Scott Brown, will take a run at Shaheen, one of New Hampshire’s political legends.
Others are about whether the Republican Party will nominate a married gay candidate, Dan Innis, to take on Shea-Porter.
University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala said he doesn’t have a crystal ball but knows there’s one thing Republicans can control and that is their candidates.
“That’s where they are lacking at this point,” Scala said.
“What happens down ticket if at the top of the ticket Gov. Hassan wins easily against a token opponent?” he asks.
Windham GOP chairman Bruce Breton is one who dismisses the polls and sees Republican victories as something that are attainable in 2014.
“I think they can mount winning campaigns if they stick to the issues,” Breton said.
“Gov. John Lynch was always strong in polling but came close to losing his seat,” Breton said.
Gov. Hassan’s numbers resemble those of Lynch.
University of New Hampshire polling recently gave Hassan a plus-43 percent approval rating. She even had a plus-13 favorability rating among Republicans.
Voters rarely remove a one-term governor in New Hampshire, and there are more Republicans avoiding the race than signing up.
Her GOP rival could be George Lambert, a little known state representative from Litchfield.
Shaheen, meanwhile, had a plus-35 favorability rating.
“Shaheen is solidly popular and solidly funded,” Scala said.
UNH tested Shaheen against two possible GOP opponents: former Congressman Charles Bass and former state Sen. Jim Rubens.
Rubens led the successful fight against allowing casino gaming in the state and is actively courting Republicans, but 82 percent of respondents said they don’t know enough about him.
He trailed Shaheen 53 to 28 percent when matched against her.
Bass, defeated last year in the 2nd Congressional District by Ann McLane Kuster, also trails Shaheen, 51 to 34 percent.
But Breton said Bass would be a tough opponent for her.
“Charlie would be a strong candidate versus Shaheen. I’d love to see a Bass-Shaheen matchup,” he said.
Conservative activist Karen Testerman, who previously ran unsuccessfully for governor, intends to run.
New England College polling last month showed Brown is the favorite among likely Republican voters at 47 percent, with Bass at 21 percent and Rubens and Testerman in single digits.
“Brown is far and away the first choice among folks who will vote in the Republican primary in 2014,” said Ben Tafoya, who oversees polling for the college.
Various polls through the year have indicated Brown could pose a serious challenge, though none gave him a lead over Shaheen.
Democrats point to Brown’s establishment of a political action committee to help other candidates as a sign he’s staying out.
Brown is this year’s will-he-won’t-he face.
“I don’t think he is,” Breton said.
“I don’t know. I can’t figure that out,” Southern New Hampshire University political science professor Dean Spiliotes said.
“I think he enjoyed the spotlight of being in the Senate,” Spiliotes said.
“This may be a way of keeping himself in the mix. Whether he’s actually going to do it, I have no idea,” he said.
Spiliotes sees reasons for Republicans to be concerned with uncertainty over the candidate field in the races for governor and Senate.
“That’s always a bad sign,” he said.
“In the Senate race, you need to get in to raise money,” Spiliotes said.
He also questions whether Bass isn’t a step backward for the rebuilding GOP.
“The party needs to re-brand itself and be more relevant,” he said.
Young Republicans, in their straw poll last month, liked Brown for Senate, George Lambert for governor and Innis for the 1st Congressional District seat.
In that straw poll,Lambert finished far ahead of Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, who hasn’t expressed an interest in the governor’s office, and Republican attorney Brad Cook, who has.
Radio talkshow host Chuck Rolecek, a former restaurant owner, also drew support in that contest.
The Young Republicans also overwhelmingly chose GOP activist Andrew Hemingway over former state Sen. Gary Lambert, no relation to George Lambert, in the 2nd Congressional District.
Polls make Shea-Porter the favorite for retaining her 1st Congressional District seat, but Scala said that, while she’s won three of four races, Shea-Porter is always living on the edge.
The numbers from UNH gave her a 16-point lead over former Congressman Frank Guinta and an 11-point advantage over Innis, an inn owner who has served as dean of business and economics at UNH.
New England College sees a closer race, giving Shea-Porter just a 1-point edge over Guinta.
“And the district itself is about as level ground as you can find in the country. If anything, it tilts a tiny bit Republican,” Scala said.
UNH pollster Andy Smith declared Kuster vulnerable, after numbers gave Gary Lambert a 1 point lead and showed her favorability rating at minus-5.
“Gary’s been on the campaign trail and is working hard,” Breton said.
Scala acknowledges Kuster is a first-termer who has work to do for name recognition and voter approval, but he said the district leans Democratic, and Gary Lambert also must work to become better known.
State Rep. Marilinda Garcia, R-Salem, long touted as potential candidate for higher office, also is a possibility but polls haven’t tested her strength.
New England College had Kuster in much better shape for reelection, holding a commanding 20-point lead over Gary Lambert.
Tafoya said mid-term elections typically favor the party out of power, in this case Republicans, because they control only the House, not the presidency or Senate.
But polling isn’t reflecting that early this cycle.
“Right now we don’t see that,” Tafoya said. “But things can change. A year is a very long time in an election cycle.”
“If the economy takes a sudden downturn, for example, or the president’s approval numbers crash, and stay down, because of Obamacare’s troubles, that will have an effect on New Hampshire’s races,” Scala said.
“A year is a long time, particularly with those Congressional seats,” Spiliotes said.
“The Obamacare thing is something that could take a toll,” Spiliotes said.
He’s not seeing what he calls a great year ahead for Democrats, but thinks they are in a better place today than the Republicans.
“The Democrats seem in great shape,” he said.
Democrats hold the incumbent’s advantage in all the races, Scala said.
“They are better known to voters, for instance, and they can raise money more easily,” he said.
Republicans, meanwhile, still have a fundamental debate ahead of them, with tension among conservatives, represented by the tea party faction, and those considered more moderate, Spiliotes said.
At the grassroots, Breton expects Republicans will work it out.
“Republicans are all conservative at heart,” he said.