New Hampshire Republicans believe they have a chance to take down Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) in 2014, but first they’ll need to recalibrate and rebuild a party coming out of disappointing losses in the 2012 cycle.
But Republicans in the state remain optimistic, pointing to historic trends in midterm elections that see an incumbent’s party lose seats.
Ryan Williams, formerly communications director for the New Hampshire Republican Party and a staffer on Mitt Romney’s campaign, noted that the political atmosphere was much the same in early 2009, before Republicans went on to make strong gains in a wave election.
“In the early part of 2009, the talk was how powerful Barack Obama was, that he was a transformational figure, and that didn’t happen. By the summer, it was a mess, and Democrats like [former Rep.] Paul Hodes and Carol Shea Porter were having to face very difficult votes for the president's policies,” he said.
Williams said Republicans will make some effort to nationalize the race, on the expectation that “overreach” from the president could turn voters against his party in 2014.
Republicans believe Shaheen could be vulnerable. At the close of the year, Shaheen posted about $400,000 cash on hand, the lowest sum of any of her incumbent colleagues who have announced they’re officially running for reelection.
Republican consulting firm RightOn Strategies commissioned a poll from New England College that showed her with only 49 percent support, just under the 50 percent threshold considered comfortable for an incumbent. A generic Republican received 43 percent of the vote in that poll.
Democrats pushed back on the poll, however, questioning the methodology and noting that it was conducted for a Republican firm.
"This is a partisan poll conducted by a group of Republicans who are all fresh off losing campaigns, and no one should take the data seriously," said Justin Barasky, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
But Republicans point to Shaheen's position on gun control as an issue that could resonate with voters in the state, as well as tough votes she’ll have to take this spring on budget and tax cuts, which Williams called “bread-and-butter issues” in New Hampshire.
Shaheen's office dismissed the potential of a challenger emerging in the coming months.
"Senator Shaheen's main focus right now is her work on behalf of New Hampshire's middle class families and small businesses. She hopes Republicans will join her in seeking common ground and balanced solutions to the challenges our country faces instead of spending all their time on politics," said Shripal Shah, Shaheen's spokesman.
Before they can launch a credible challenge to Shaheen, however, Republicans in the state admit they’ll need to work to reinvigorate a party shaken by 2012.
Jim Coburn, a former New Hampshire state representative and Republican nominee for governor, said there is some palpable fatigue among donors in the state who feel their money may not have been put to good use, a feeling widespread among Republican donors nationwide.
“There are some things we need to fix in our own house. We need to instill confidence in the Republican organization in general nationwide, because after this election, I think people are going to be holding back a little bit,” he said.
And Mike Biundo, a former Romney campaign staffer, said that the results of 2012 clearly indicated New Hampshire Republicans, like Republicans nationwide, will need to put more effort into their on-the-ground operations.
“I don’t think we need to change who we are as a party to win. But we have to get better at our ground game, especially in presidential years when they’re going to have the whole weight, on the Democratic side, focusing on specific states,” he said.
It’s something party activists from the grassroots on up will focus on going into 2014, Biundo said. But ground game alone can’t win Republicans the 2014 race — they’ll have to front a credible challenger, and none has yet to emerge.
Former Rep. Frank Guinta, who was narrowly defeated in his reelection campaign last cycle by Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, has made it known to operatives in the state that he’s weighing a run. State Sen. Jeb Bradley, who previously represented the first district, is considering jumping in as well.
Businessman and one-time candidate Bill Binnie, who spent nearly $7 million on his 2010 pursuit of the nomination for Senate, is contemplating a run.
And former Sen. John E. Sununu, son of former N.H. Gov. John H. Sununu, is also keeping the option open. When reached by The Hill, his brother, Chris, said that a Senate run is “certainly something he has on his mind.”
But all have previously lost high-profile races, and with both House seats up, as well as the governor’s mansion, most potential contenders in New Hampshire have a handful of options available in running for higher office. Sources say Guinta could decide instead to challenge Shea-Porter for his old seat again, considered by most an easier race.
But New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley noted that no potential candidate yet cuts the figure Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) did in 2010, when she rapidly rose in the Republican primary race with establishment and some insurgent backing.
“There really isn’t any ‘there’ there with the Republicans right now,” he said.
That may simply be because the New Hampshire GOP is a party in need of refreshing. Andrew Smith, associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire and director of the university's survey center, which conducts statewide, said the party had been dominant for so long that it’s taken some time for leaders to wake up to the reality of a credible Democratic Party.
“They were the dominant party for so long that they never saw the Democratic Party as a serious contender, and they thought that the wins in 2006 and 2008 were aberrations. So they never built the party, the machinery, the messaging that they needed to,” he said.
But there are early indications the New Hampshire GOP plans to do just that.
About 130 top elected officials and grassroots organizers gathered at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics on Thursday night for an off-the-record meeting, organized by Biundo and others, to discuss plans and recalibrate for the future of the party.
Half of the meeting was spent addressing issues crystallized by the party’s losses in 2012, with a focus on ground game, which attendees seemed to agree was an area in need of improvement, according to a person in the room.
Attendees also addressed bubbling tensions between the establishment faction of the GOP and the conservative and libertarian wings, a schism that had been exacerbated by a contentious race for the party chairmanship, ultimately won by Jennifer Horn, the establishment candidate.
One attendee active in New Hampshire Republican politics said the meeting addressed the party’s issues. But the attendee was quick to note that the GOP is still optimistic going into the next two cycles.
“Certainly we are still a swing state,” the attendee said.
“But with the emphasis on the grassroots, new technologies and unity in the party, the infrastructure's there to win big in 2014 and 2016.”