In New Hampshire, Sen. Sununu makes up for lost polling ground

After a summer of trailing his opponent by double digits, Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) is making up lost ground.

A University of New Hampshire poll, taken Sept.14-21, shows Sununu trailing former Gov. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne Shaheen2020 forecast: A House switch, a slimmer Senate for GOP — and a bigger win for Trump Lewandowski decides against Senate bid Biden would consider Republican for VP 'but I can't think of one right now' MORE (D) by just four points, and a Sept. 23 Rasmussen poll has him with a seven-point lead.

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Political analysts say Shaheen’s early lead was due to the fact that Sununu had not started aggressively campaigning yet nor dipping into his considerable campaign funds. They note this time of year is when people start paying attention to the election.

“[Shaheen] had the lead in the spring and summer based on the active campaign that she’s running,” said Jennifer Donahue, political director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics.

“The closing of the polls reflects that the public is paying attention.”

The Shaheen campaign claims it is not concerned about the recent change in polling.

“I think polls come and go. We don’t put too much stock in one number,” Shaheen communications director Kate Bedingfield said.

The Sununu campaign countered by stressing its campaign theme — the senator is independent of Washington Republicans.

“Voters continue to respond enthusiastically to the town-to-town, person-to-person campaign of Sen. John Sununu and appreciate his independent and principled leadership. As such, it is no surprise that all the trends have been positive for the Sununu campaign with only a few weeks to go until the election,” Sununu spokeswoman Stefani Zimmerman told The Hill.

Sununu has a war chest of funds that he is only beginning to dip into. As of Aug. 20, the end of the last filing period, Sununu had $5.1 million on hand compared to $4.4 million for Shaheen.

Due to the longer time that Shaheen has been campaigning, she has spent considerably more money — $5.2 million compared to $1.3 million for Sununu.

Sununu, who comes from a well-known New Hampshire family, was elected in 2002, after defeating incumbent Sen. Bob Smith in the GOP primary and the popular then-Gov. Shaheen (D) in the general election.

This cycle, Shaheen returned for a rematch after losing to Sununu by four percentage points.
But the political climate of 2008 is very different than it was in 2002.

In September of 2002, President Bush’s job approval rating in New Hampshire was 57 percent, according to a poll by the American Research Group.

By Sept. 25, 2008, however, the same poll found that his approval rating had deteriorated to 15 percent.

Like many Democratic challengers across the country, Shaheen has sought to tie her Republican opponent to the unpopular administration. And her strategy may be especially effective against Sununu, whose father, John H. Sununu, was chief of staff to the first President Bush.

A recent Shaheen ad depicts a Sununu look-alike digging in a ditch. Shaheen walks in front of the camera and says, “George Bush put our economy in a hole, so why is John Sununu still digging in the same failed direction?”

“The choice is between six more years of failed Bush economic policies that have gotten us to this situation or a new economic direction with Jeanne Shaheen,” Bedingfield said.

Sununu has countered by stressing his independence. One of his ads notes: “He led opposition to a Republican energy bill, was the first Republican to call for firing Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, demanded changes to the Patriot Act. Popular positions? Not with Republicans in Washington.”

{mospagebreak}Donahue noted: “Sununu’s challenge is to differentiate himself from Bush, and it’s difficult to do that. So far it hasn’t worked.”

Both campaigns are focusing on energy and the economy. Sununu has touted his support for offshore drilling in recent ads and statements, and Shaheen has emphasized alternative energies. Donohue noted that energy costs are especially important in New Hampshire, where cold winters mean expensive heating bills.

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In the end, however, Donohue said, “It’s all about the economy.” Nationally, Democrats do better on economics, and Donohue expects this to hold true in New Hampshire.

Median income in New Hampshire is higher than the national average, which, Donohue said, means voters are more likely in touch with the crisis on Wall Street.

On Wednesday, Democratic leaders released a potentially damaging video of Sununu arguing against regulation of the banking industry. During a March 2006 Senate Banking Committee hearing, Sununu said, “I don’t see the problem as being one of a lack of regulation or the need for additional regulation in the area of particular business practices as much as it is a question of a lack of competition.”

The video undercuts Sununu’s recent claims that he was an early proponent of finance reform. Donohue described the video as “the kind of thing that could really hurt.”

As the campaign has intensified, both sides have begun airing negative ads.

In Sununu’s Sept. 23 ad “Energy,” the narrator says, “Jeanne Shaheen’s plan: back to the ’70s. Higher energy taxes, no new exploration, greater dependence on foreign oil. It didn’t work for Jimmy Carter then. It won’t work today.”

At the end of Shaheen’s Sept. 4 “Where You Lead” ad, the text reads, “Sununu followed Bush but failed New Hampshire.”

The recent University of New Hampshire poll shows that since the negative ads began airing, the favorability ratings of both candidates have dropped.

According to the poll, 7 percent more voters view Sununu favorably than unfavorably. As recently as July, Sununu had a net favorability of plus-19 percent. Shaheen also has a net favorability of plus-7 percent, down from plus-22 percent in July.

“The polls now are probably where they are going to stay for a while,” Donohue said. “It’s going to be a nail-biter.”