Republican must survive tough primary for rematch

Former GOP Rep. Jeb Bradley faces a tough primary challenge from the right in his effort to take back his New Hampshire congressional seat from last year’s surprise winner, Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D).

John Stephen, the former state health commissioner, is challenging Bradley for the Republican nomination in the 1st district. Stephen has already drawn distinctions between himself and Bradley over spending and abortion rights.

The race is in the more conservative of the two congressional districts in New Hampshire, a state that appears to be trending toward Democrats. Last year, Democrats captured the state legislature and both House seats, defeating two GOP incumbents. Next year, GOP Sen. John Sununu appears to face a difficult reelection battle against former Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen.

Several Republicans have blamed their party’s losses on candidates who failed to contrast themselves with Democrats. That won’t be a problem for Stephen, a constant thorn in the side of popular Gov. John Lynch (D). As head of the state’s largest agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, Stephen fought to reduce funding for Medicaid and cut down on the number of development-disabilities agencies. On the campaign trail, he touts the fact that he returned $143 million from his budget to taxpayers as evidence that he’ll help rein in federal spending.

Stephen isn’t shying away from taking on Bradley, who beat him and six other candidates in a 2002 Republican primary for the same congressional seat. Stephen noted that he’s pro-life while Bradley is pro-choice. And he said that he would have opposed the Medicare prescription drug benefit, which Bradley voted for in 2003.

“We need new leadership, new blood, to be able to say no to special interests,” Stephen said. “That’s not the type of leadership I’ve seen in Washington in representatives of this district. This hasn’t just been a problem in the last year; this has been a problem in the past five years.”

For now, Bradley is focused less on the Stephen primary challenge and more on Shea-Porter’s record. He said he would have opposed the comprehensive immigration reform bill, a halt to war funding and legislation making it easier for unions to form, all efforts that Shea-Porter has supported.

“This time, she’s not a blank slate,” said Bradley, who served two terms in Congress. “This time, she has a voting record in line with San Francisco more than she does with New Hampshire, where it’s a ‘Live Free or Die,’ no-broad-based-taxes electorate.”

Bradley has tried to portray Shea-Porter as beholden to Democratic House leaders, calling her “Carol Shea-Pelosi.” He said that more Republican voters will turn out next year than in 2006.

He also notes that his 2006 fight with Shea-Porter was among the closest in the state, with Shea-Porter winning 51 to 49 percent.

“I felt I had unfinished business,” Bradley said in explaining why he is running for his old seat. “I certainly thought it was a great honor to represent New Hampshire and to work on behalf of our nation’s veterans and for a growing economy.”

Shea-Porter’s supporters said she better reflects the mood of Granite Staters, who are still tired of the war in Iraq. Her anti-war message galvanized both Democrats and independents last year, according to Jim Splaine, a long-time Democratic state legislator from Portsmouth.

“I would put both of her opponents in a position to explain why we continue to waste American lives and resources in Iraq,” Splaine said.

While both Stephen and Bradley will try to portray her as out of touch, many Democrats in the district running down the wealthier eastern half of the state tend to be better educated, more affluent and thus more progressive, said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. That’s why Shea-Porter’s endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in the presidential primary is no surprise, Scala said. It’s also why she was able to build a network of 650 volunteers.

It’s a network she plans to rely on instead of Washington money. She decided not to accept an invitation to join the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Frontline 10 program, aimed at providing more campaign resources to freshman House Democrats.

So far, Shea-Porter has raised $413,309, more than both Bradley and Stephen, according to the most recent campaign finance filings. Bradley has raised $266,102 and Stephen has received $150,516. Stephen, however, notes that he has gotten more donations from individuals than Bradley, who has received more political action committee donations.

The Republican candidate will likely have support from the National Republican Campaign Committee, which has already run radio ads trying to tie Shea-Porter to Pelosi.

“The last time around was an off-year election,” Scala said, “when they had a Democratic governor who got 70 percent of the vote. That’s the key question for Shea-Porter. Was that [last year] just an accident, because of the fact that everything was going the Democrats’ way in New Hampshire?”