Demographics shift could color how N.H. votes

ByJohn Fritze, USA TODAY
October 2, 2008, 10:46 PM

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Diane Beauregard says she has been a Republican since Ronald Reagan was president, but this year she's looking for a reason to vote Democrat in one of the nation's most closely watched Senate races.

So when Beauregard spotted former governor Jeanne Shaheen at a Stop & Shop, she yelled from the checkout line, put down her groceries and began grilling the Democratic Senate candidate on the economy, taxes and jobs.

"With the price of everything going up, the burden on the middle class is just too great," says Beauregard, a 50-year-old furniture store manager who says she was pleased with Shaheen's answers. "I'm extremely dissatisfied with the Republican Party."

Democrats hope to capitalize on that dissatisfaction in the Granite State, where Shaheen is mounting an aggressive campaign against Republican Sen. John Sununu in a rerun of their tight campaign six years ago. An influx of new Democrats to the state may help that effort.

A University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll in mid-September gave Shaheen a 4-percentage-point lead, which is within the margin of error.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who heads the Democratic Senate fundraising committee, has indicated that he hopes New Hampshire's race will help the party grow its 51-49 voting majority in the Senate.

Sununu, who beat Shaheen with 51% of the vote in 2002, is running a disciplined campaign, has $2.9 million more in the bank and has been underestimated before, says Dante Scala of the political science department at University of New Hampshire. "They don't panic," Scala says. "He kind of stuck to his game plan. Steady as it goes."

Independent-minded voters

At campaign events and in television advertisements, Shaheen tries to tie Sununu to President Bush and the faltering economy. Adopting a refrain of this year's presidential race, Shaheen frequently claims Sununu votes with Bush 90% of the time.

A Congressional Quarterly analysis of voting records shows Sununu voted with Bush 83% of the time in 2007 — down from 90% in 2006. In 2003 and 2004, he voted with Bush 95% and 96% of the time, respectively.

"Sununu's followed right along the line with Bush," Shaheen said between campaign stops. "Our goal is to make sure that people know that he supported the Bush policies on the economy, on this budget, the debt and the deficit."

Sununu is pushing back, touting his independence. In Coos County, he told supporters he helped block the Patriot Act until civil liberties protections were included. He mentions a proposal he introduced in 2003 that would have strengthened oversight of mortgage financiers, if it had passed.

"I've got a record not just of areas where I might have disagreed with my party, but where I led the effort," said Sununu, who is launching his own attacks against Shaheen for increasing the budget during her tenure as governor. "I vote with New Hampshire 100% of the time."

New Hampshire's primary election helped reinvigorate GOP nominee John McCain's presidential campaign in January, and the UNH Survey Center poll showed McCain with a 2-percentage-point lead. Democrat nominee Barack Obama finished second behind Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primary.

New Hampshire voters are renowned for their political savvy and independence — 38% do not to enroll in a party — but recent demographic shifts are making the state more blue, says Andrew Smith, director of the UNH Survey Center.

The state, which backed Bush in 2000 but Democrat John Kerry in 2004, experienced 11% growth in population from 1990 to 2000, the fastest in New England. Many of the transplants are arriving for service industry jobs and many lean Democrat, Smith says.

That growth, along with low approval ratings for Bush, helped drive Democrats to victory in 2006, when they won the governor's office, the state's two U.S. House seats and the Legislature for the first time in decades.

"We've had this huge sea change," says Dean Spiliotes, a former political science professor at Dartmouth College who runs a political blog, "We have a lot of people coming into the state who tend to be either more independent or more Democratic."

'We gotta change'

Sununu — at 44, he is the youngest member of the Senate — served in the House from 1997 to 2002. Shaheen, 61, was the state's first elected female governor, a position she held from 1997 to 2003.

Both candidates have made the economy a central campaign theme in a state where the cost of home heating oil can become a big issue as winter approaches.

"For a country that is rapidly going bankrupt … we need people like (Sununu) to question the status quo," says Dick Ramsden, 71, who owns a refurbished late-18th-century barn in Lyme. "I don't care if you're Democrat or Republican, we gotta change in this country."

Robert Perkins, 52, was directing traffic at a high school football game in Rochester as he talked politics. He listens to the television advertising that has inundated residents but, like many, he has a tough time sorting out who is right on the issues.

Perkins, whose son is serving a second tour in Iraq with the Army National Guard, is leaning toward Shaheen. "It might be time to mix things up a bit," he says.

Then again, he says, voters recognize that change is not always good. "They're going to just vote for change because they think it might help," he says. "Whether it will or not, that's another question."