The state's political establishment has it all wrong when talking about who will take on Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte in 2016. It isn't who the best candidate might be to take on the Republican rising star, it's who will base Democrats pick to do so.
Democratic operatives and establishment types all say they were going with the "operating assumption" that Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan will challenge Ayotte. Certainly this is the matchup that Washington Democrats like Harry Reid are hoping to make happen. If she doesn't run, some Democrats already have their eyes on a different woman to take on Ayotte: U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster.
All this thinking misses a much more obvious option: retiring U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter.
Since 2006, New Hampshire has been the most swing of swing states in the entire country. Nearly every two years since then there has been a violent move from Democrat to Republican. This should have taught us a lesson by now about how New Hampshire politics works lately: What matters most is if a candidate can win a primary, the general election atmosphere cannot be controlled.
There is no better example of this concept that Shea-Porter's three repeat contests with Republican Frank Guinta. The reason voters had the same choices three different times is because neither of these candidates could be defeated in a primary and then they won or lost against each other depending on the political mood of the year.
This is what makes Shea-Porter really interesting as a U.S. Senate candidate in 2016. Should she ever consider it, she definitely has more of a path to victory than Kuster and maybe even Hassan.
Shea-Porter might be the most prominent true progressive ever elected to major office in New Hampshire in a century. She owns the label. She was running for office talking about the "99 percent" five years before it became the rallying cry for Occupy Wall Street protesters.
Her liberal positions matter because in a typical low-turnout Democratic primary for the Senate in 2016 a well-run liberal campaign is the one that will win.
Kuster showed how this played out in 2010 when she ran was the well-funded progressive challenging perceived Democratic front-runner Katrina Swett. In the years since progressives have lost favor with Kuster. One group, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, strongly backed Kuster in 2010 and 2012, only to totally drop her once she starting voting in Congress.
As one top Democratic put it to me: Shea-Porter would beat Kuster 10 to 1 in a Democratic primary for the Senate. Sure, Kuster can raise more money, but Shea-Porter has the Democratic base locked down in the state's 1st Congressional District and would be favored in the more liberal 2nd Congressional District.
In 2012, when Hassan ran for governor the first time, she faced a challenge from the left. Hassan's opponent, former state Sen. Jackie Cilley, lacked fundraising and no one really knew who she was, reasons that she wasn't a perfect candidate. Hassan deserves credit for that win. What few know, however, is that Hassan was flown to Washington and encouraged to take on Shea-Porter in a Democratic Primary. Hassan turned down that idea. In the end, two other Democrats did challenge Shea-Porter, but dropped out before they could even put their name on the ballot.
And unlike Hassan and Kuster, Shea-Porter won't be in office next year and has nothing to lose by running.
Until she takes her name out of contention, watch Shea-Porter.
(James Pindell covers politics for WMUR. You can see his breaking news and analysis at WMUR.com/political scoop and on WMUR-TV.)
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