Vulnerable sen. stands his ground

Despite hailing from an increasingly Democratic state and being considered the Senate’s most vulnerable Republican, John Sununu has resisted taking a centrist position in some of the most contentious battles of the 110th Congress.

Other endangered GOP lawmakers from moderate states have inched toward the center, but the New Hampshire Republican consistently has stuck to his conservative roots on hotly debated issues of immigration, the Iraq war, the budget, healthcare and energy policy.

Democrats are hammering Sununu on his votes in an effort to alienate him from independent voters, who make up a whopping 43 percent of the electorate in his state.

“Sununu has just been in a very difficult position,” said Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College. “If he breaks too publicly  ... it will look like political opportunism, but he has got to get some air between himself and the Republican Party.”

As poll numbers for President Bush and the Iraq war have sunk to all-time lows in the Granite State, the senator has seen his favorability ratings plummet. A June poll by the University of New Hampshire said Sununu was viewed favorably by 43 percent and unfavorably by 35 percent of the state’s voters, marking a 12-point drop in favorability from last year — this after
New Hampshire voters last year ousted their two Republican House members from office.

Sununu’s supporters argue he has taken principled stands even if they are unpopular, saying his positions are consistent with his philosophy of small government and fiscal conservatism. On the Iraq war, which he continues to support, Sununu says politicians must stand up for what they believe in and clearly articulate their vision to the public. He opposes a timetable for withdrawing troops, but supports a measure calling for the implementation of the 2006 Iraq Study Group report.

“Just stand up, whether it’s at home or here in Washington, and let people know how you feel,” Sununu said.

Sununu’s political calculus may stem from the fact that he has yet to draw a primary opponent and holds a narrow advantage over the Democratic candidates currently in the race, including Katrina Swett, a consultant and daughter of 14-term Rep.
Tom Lantos (D-Calif.). National and local Democrats are mounting an intense effort to recruit former Gov. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenKey endorsements: A who's who in early states Key endorsements: A who's who in early states Design leaks for Harriet Tubman bill after Mnuchin announces delay MORE, who lost in 2002 by four percentage points to Sununu. Now polls suggest Shaheen would hold a double-digit lead over Sununu if she entered the race.

Sununu has taken a few steps away from Bush. The senator has resisted holding fundraisers with the president, and was the first Republican to call for the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. He also has called for limits on the sprawling surveillance operations authorized by the 2001 Patriot Act.

Still, Sununu has backed his party this Congress far more than any of the Republicans who are among the most vulnerable in the 2008 elections. According to a Washington Post voting study, Sununu this Congress has voted with his party 84 percent of the time. Meanwhile, vulnerable Republican Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota has voted with the GOP 76 percent of the time, Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon 71 percent of the time and Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate confirms Trump judicial nominee criticized for being hostile to LGBT community Senate confirms Trump judicial nominee criticized for being hostile to LGBT community GOP frets about Trump's poll numbers MORE of Maine 67 percent of the time.

Earlier this month, Sununu showcased his conservative credentials during debate over expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which covers about 7 million children without insurance. While he ended up supporting the bill’s passage, the senator — unlike the three other vulnerable Republicans — repeatedly voted for amendments to narrow its scope.

For instance, he voted for Republican amendments to exclude those with Alternative Minimum Tax liability from eligibility under the program, sunset the increase in cigarette taxes to pay for the program and prohibit states from using funds until they demonstrate they have adequately covered low-income children. In each case, the other three endangered Republicans were opposed.

Sununu was alone among the vulnerable Republicans in voting against Democratic-led efforts to allow for the importation of prescription drugs. He was the sole endangered GOP senator to vote against a bill in April to require the government to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices under Medicare, and he and Coleman both voted against efforts to expand stem cell research.

“He is out of step with New Hampshire values and behind on the times,” the chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, Raymond Buckley, said.

On immigration, he and the other three senators voted to block the contentious bill, but in May, he was alone among the other three in supporting a failed amendment by Sen. David VitterDavid Bruce VitterLobbying World Senate confirms Trump judge who faced scrutiny over abortion views Collins votes against Trump judicial pick MORE (R-La.) to strike the bill’s plan to create a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s 12 million illegal immigrants.

When the Senate debated an energy bill in June, Sununu supported its passage, but not before he voted to kill a $32 billion tax package aimed at increasing the country’s reliance on renewable fuels at the expense of oil companies.

Former Rep. Charlie Bass, a Republican who lost his 2006 bid for a seventh term in New Hampshire, said Sununu will be attacked regardless of whether he shifts politically or stays consistent.

“When the current is running against you, you get in trouble when you swim with it or against it,” said Bass, who now heads the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership, which has endorsed Sununu’s reelection bid.

Bass expressed optimism on Sununu’s chances in 2008, predicting a high voter turnout and saying the top of the state GOP ticket will be stronger than it was in 2006 when Republicans fielded a lackluster gubernatorial candidate, James Coburn, who lost decisively to Democrat John Lynch.

The chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, Fergus Cullen, said Sununu is in a strong position on the issues and shouldn’t worry about running to the center.

Sununu has a vast organization within the state and a war chest of $1.5 million this election cycle, slightly less than the average of $1.8 million raised by senators seeking reelection, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

“He will be well prepared with plenty of money — even though his numbers aren’t that good,” said Andrew Smith, director of the survey center at the University of New Hampshire.