Can Sununu Survive the Toxic GOP?

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Michael Bolten / Pool / AP

Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, right speaks as her Republican opponent U.S. Sen. John Sununu listens during a U.S. Senate canidates' forum in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Suffice it to say that the Sununus may be taking the Bush family off their Christmas list this year. John H. Sununu was a three-term governor of New Hampshire who served as George H.W. Bush's White House chief of staff for two years before he was forced to resign in disgrace amid charges that he misused government aircraft for personal trips. The family name was restored in 2002 when his son, John E. Sununu, became New Hampshire's junior senator after knocking off incumbent Senator Bob Smith in the GOP primary and then defeating popular former Governor Jeanne Shaheen in the general election. The younger Sununu, just 38 years old at the time, was widely viewed as an intelligent, sharp politician who would be one of the party's rising stars.

And yet, due almost entirely to the unpopularity of George W. Bush, Sununu looks headed for early retirement in the final days of a re-match against Shaheen. Although he has raised and spent more money than his Democratic opponent, Sununu has never led since she entered the race last December. He has been more sure-footed when they have faced off in debates throughout October, but he still trails Shaheen by an average of 8 percentage points in state polls. Shaheen hasn't done much more to define Sununu than to argue that he is too close to Bush. But so far, that's been enough.

Given the tainted GOP brand nationally—and in New Hampshire, where four state party officials have been convicted of hiring a firm to jam Democratic phone lines during the 2002 election—Sununu has tried to present himself as, well, a maverick. In the Senate, he has gone out of his way to stake out some independent ground—opposing reauthorization of the Patriot Act, supporting land conservation issues, and being the first Republican Senator to call for the resignation of former attorney general Alberto Gonzales. During the last televised debate in the Senate race, both candidates were asked to identify issues on which they took stands that were politically unpopular. Shaheen paused uncomfortably for a few moments before ultimately arguing that she doesn't pay attention to polls. In response, Sununu eagerly noted that he had supported the congressional bailout package, even though most New Hampshire voters opposed it. "I will always take a stand for what I think is right for New Hampshire," he said.

In 2002, when Sununu and Shaheen first faced-off, Republicans were the ones with a built-in advantage. The country still showed signs of post-9/11 shock, war in Iraq was still months away, and Bush's approval ratings were impressively high. In New Hampshire, the GOP held a 11-point registration advantage over Democrats. Republicans were relieved, but not surprised, when the three-term congressman Sununu won the Senate seat by 4% over Shaheen.

But two years later, New Hampshire voters had started to turn against the Bush administration. The war was not popular there from the start and the small state felt its losses more keenly. When a soldier from Conway or Whitefield died, the news made the front-page of papers all over the state. In the 2004 presidential election, New Hampshire became the only state that had voted for Bush in 2000 to flip into the Democratic column. The backlash continued in 2006, with more dramatic results. Riding a tide of anti-war opinion, two Democratic challengers upset both of the state's GOP congressmen. Popular Governor John Lynch held onto his seat with 76% of the vote, and Democrats took control of both the state House and Senate, putting the party in charge of both the executive and legislative branches for the first time since the 19th century.

Despite the shift that seemed to be taking place in the state, the GOP was optimistic about New Hampshire for 2008 after John McCain captured the party's nomination. The state has been good to the Arizona senator, who blew out Bush in the 2000 primary by 18 points, and revived his campaign by winning this year's contest by 5 points over Mitt Romney. New Hampshire voters tend to be fiscally conservative—the state is home to the Concord Coalition, an anti-deficit non-profit—but fairly progressive on social issues. From that perspective, McCain seemed like a welcome change from Bush: a fiscal conservative who wouldn't focus much on abortion or gay marriage. And, in fact, Barack Obama and McCain stayed fairly close in New Hampshire polls up until the end of the summer.

But in mid-September, just around the time that the financial markets imploded and Americans started to learn more about Sarah Palin, Barack Obama started shooting up in New Hampshire polling, and he hasn't looked back. "There's been a real concern about her right-wing identification, particularly on social issues," says Linda Fowler, a political scientist at Dartmouth College. "Palin has just not sat well with independent women here." The running-mate pick may have helped McCain shore up his base in other states, but for New Hampshire's independent-minded voters, it raised questions about his "maverick" reputation and reminded them of what they disliked about Bush.

Both McCain and Sununu have also been hurt by New Hampshire's changing electorate. As voters from the Boston suburbs have moved north over the border into New Hampshire, the state has become younger, more liberal, and less rural. According to a recent University of New Hampshire study, New Hampshire has one of the most mobile populations in the country—45% of residents were born in the state, compared to 67% nationally. That means that nearly a third of eligible voters this year are new since 2000. And while longtime New Hampshire voters are split almost evenly between Republicans and Democrats, these new voters are much more likely (almost 2 to 1) to identify as Democratic.

It's no wonder then that Shaheen doesn't miss a chance to remind voters that Sununu has voted with Bush more than 80% of the time during his six years in the Senate. In their debates, she rarely says his name without also mentioning Bush. One of her television ads features a clip of Bush saying, "John Sununu was with me from the beginning." Visit her campaign website and you'll find six of 10 ads that feature images of or references to the president.

And as the race winds down, Sununu has responded to such attacks with an unorthodox move—trying to tie his Democratic opponent to Bush. Sununu's campaign has released an ad pointing out that Shaheen initially supported the war in Iraq as well as Bush's tax cuts, and using footage of her repeatedly saying "I'll stand with President Bush" in 2002. It's a long-shot effort from a politician whose rise has been halted by an unpopular president. "If the question is who is closer to Bush," says a top Shaheen strategist, "that's an easy one. He loses."

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