Shaheen’s delay creating uncertainty in New Hampshire’s Senate election

Former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen’s (D) silence about whether she’ll enter next year’s race to unseat Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) is creating uncertainty among potential challengers and state Democratic Party activists.

Now that the race has turned the Labor Day corner — the traditional start of the campaign season — at least one challenger has started to shy from early assertions that he would step aside if the immensely popular former governor does get in the race.

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“If Jeanne Shaheen decides to enter the race, then we’ll worry about that when and if it happens,” Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand (D) told The Hill on Wednesday.

Marchand said in February that if Shaheen got into the race, he would drop out and do everything possible to help her beat Sununu.

But with two primary opponents already in the race, more than 60 endorsements filed by state officials and a frenzied campaign trail, Marchand said he could not consider Shaheen’s plans as carefully as he did earlier in the year.

“Obviously, she’s not running right now, and I don’t think anybody really knows what she’s going to do,” Marchand said. “I just have to be the best candidate I can be.

“It’s not productive to worry a whole lot about what others may or may not do.”

Marchand probably won’t have much longer to wait before he has to make his decision.

Shaheen’s husband, Bill, a prominent New Hampshire Democrat in his own right, told The Hill he expects the former governor to make a decision by the end of the month in order “to be fair to the other candidates.”

Bill Shaheen said his wife is enjoying her current position as director of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government’s Institute of Politics, complicating her decision.

Shaheen spokesman Esten Perez said that Shaheen is aware of polls showing her well ahead of Sununu and that she is “seriously considering” a run, but she is not operating under any pending deadlines.

“She’s not really working with a timetable,” Perez said. “I think she’s just trying to make the decision and whether she wants to do it. There is no sense of time.”

The most recent polls indicate that Shaheen would be the clear favorite to unseat Sununu, but both Marchand and Katrina Swett, Rep. Tom Lantos’s (D-Calif.) daughter and wife to former Ambassador Dick Swett, are within striking distance.

A July University of New Hampshire/WMUR-TV poll shows Shaheen beating Sununu 54 percent to 38. Marchand comes in at 38 percent to the senator’s 42 percent, and Swett lands at 39 percent to 43.

Dartmouth medical Professor Jay Buckey, the other Democrat in the race, registers 28 percent to Sununu’s 44.

Swett’s campaign did not return a call for comment on this article.

Marchand said he has been campaigning “methodically and relentlessly” around the state as he tries to improve his name recognition. Currently, about 30 percent of the state’s residents knows who he is.

Despite his campaign pace and the number of endorsements he has lined up, Marchand acknowledges that many supporters and donors in and out of the state are staying on the sidelines waiting to see what Shaheen does.

“There are many people politically and financially who will keep their powder dry until they see what the final field looks like,” he said.

He describes those who are backing him, though, as “committed,” which creates a bit of a dilemma for the young mayor when deciding whether to abandon his campaign if Shaheen gets in.

A political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, Dante Scala, said Marchand could seriously damage any political aspirations he has if he decides to stay in and challenge the former governor.

“He could do more damage to himself and his future political prospects if he were to go back on that,” Scala said of Marchand’s pledge to step aside. “That’s a much riskier play, to reverse on something you publicly said you would do.”

A former chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, Kathy Sullivan, who is leading a Draft Shaheen movement, said most of the people who are lining up behind the current field, specifically Marchand, are doing so because they are being offered an “escape clause.” That is to say, Marchand’s assurance that he would step aside has made it easier for people to back him publicly early on.

Sullivan said most people probably “think he should live up to his pledge.”

“But you know, that’s up to him,” she said.

The state party appears to be staying far out of the fray or guessing game surrounding the field. When called by The Hill, party spokeswoman Pia Carusone said that state Chairman Ray Buckley didn’t want to talk about Shaheen’s possible interest.

Carusone would say only that the party is focused entirely on Sununu, and in that respect, “We’re going full steam ahead.”