The Mean Shaheen Machine

Earlier this week, I speculated that the "draft" movement to entice Jeanne Shaheen, the former three-term Democratic governor of New Hampshire, into challenging John Sununu for his Senate seat next year might be a bit of a ruse, with Shaheen feigning reluctance while her friend, the state's former Democratic chairwoman, leads the draft effort.   After all, the less hungry a politician seems, the better he or she looks to the public.

Anyway, whether it's all an elaborate plot or not, there's even more evidence to believe that Shaheen will ultimately take the plunge: The DSCC is now shopping around a poll that has her leading Sununu 57 to 29 percent.   This is the typical game the DSCC and NRSC play when they've locked in on a recruiting target.  Generally, the data they release is a little rosier than reality, but even if this poll is 10 points off, Shaheen's entry would instantly make Sununu, to whom she narrowly lost in 2002, the most endangered Republican incumbent in the nation.  

Of course, the poll probably says as much about Shaheen's strengths as it does New Hampshire's political evolution.   It's hard to believe, but in 1988 the Granite State gave George H.W. Bush 64 percent of the vote against Michael Dukakis.  Back then, Republicans controlled just about every office in the state, but now it's rapidly turning blue.   Last fall, Democrats won both of the state's Congressional seats (including one that had only been in Democratic hands for four of the previous 96 years) and claimed both houses of the Legislature for the first time since the Civil War.   Also, Democratic Governor John Lynch was re-elected with over 70 percent of the vote.

New Hampshire, with its fierce anti-tax tradition, was always a shade or two redder than any other northeast state, but its stunning transformation mirrors a region-wide political shift.   The two primary catalysts were the 1994 election of a Republican Congress and George W. Bush's victory in 2000.  To independent voters in the Northeast, who for decades had happily elected moderate Rockefeller Republicans at all levels of the ballot, the Republican Party that emerged – one dominated and defined by conservative Christians from the south – was unrecognizable and unacceptable.

And so, for instance, a state like New Jersey, which lopsidedly favored George H.W. Bush over Dukakis in '88, turned sharply to the left in the 1990s, siding with Clinton in both 1992 and 1996 and favoring Al Gore by 16 points in 2000.  And Connecticut, Vermont and Maine – all of which favored the elder Bush in his '88 bid – are now so reliably blue that neither party contests them at the presidential level.   After the '06 elections – in which the Northeast swung as dramatically to the Democrats as the South did the GOP in '94 – only one of the 22 Congressmen from New England is a Republican (Chris Shays in Connecticut).

What will it mean for '08?  Obviously, Sununu is in deep trouble in New Hampshire, and if he loses the GOP's already slim chances of reclaiming the Senate are finished.  There's also Susan Collins in Maine, a moderate Republican who will be challenged by Democratic Rep. Tom Allen next year.  I haven't seen any polling on that race, but Allen's effort is probably inspired by Sheldon Whitehouse's campaign in Rhode Island last year, in which voters threw out Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee even though they liked him – simply because of his party label.   And how about at the House level, where Democrats would love to squeeze a few extra seats out of this region?  It looks like the DCCC is looking to stir up some trouble this weekend in three potential targeted districts in the Northeast, taking aim at Republican incumbents Randy Kuhl and James Walsh from New York and Mike Ferguson in New Jersey.