In just three weeks, Republicans will choose who will face one of the most successful politicians in recent New Hampshire history: incumbent US Senator Jeanne Shaheen.
This race is one of less than a dozen in the country that could help decide the balance of power in the Senate.
On paper, the three leading candidates have their strengths, but the front-runner remains clear. In the field are two former Senators, and a former state-level politician who the Manchester Union leader declared Citizen of the year in 2013.
But all of them have baggage.
“Scott Brown moved to New Hampshire late last year after many years in Massachusetts; Bob Smith ran for president briefly as an Independent, moved to Florida and looked at running for Senate there before coming back to New Hampshire; and Jim Rubens for years has focused solely on casino gambling, a state issue,” said George Epstein, moderator at a recent Republican debate in North Conway, when introing the candidates, “Why should New Hampshire Republicans want you as their nominee?”
Polls indicate that Scott Brown has this race well in hand. And when you head out on the campaign trail you find a fair number of voters like Ray Dumis from Nashua, who hasn’t even heard of Brown’s competitors.
“Apparently I don’t read up on them enough to say that it would sway me,” said Dumis at a recent Brown campaign event, “I’m so certain about Scott Brown… he is really an excellent person.”
But that’s not to say Brown doesn’t have his skeptics.
For instance, when candidates were invited to “stump on a stump” by the New Hampshire Farm Bureau, Denis Ward of Monroe introduced Brown, saying “He’s living in Rye, currently, I believe.”
Brown does live in Rye, but talked like he was fresh off the farm.
“My family has a history of farming as well, everybody enjoys farming. You know my youngest daughter she has John Deere bedsheets, towels, you name it,” he told the assembled farmers and politicos.
Regardless, some in that crowd weren’t persuaded.
“Well I thought that Mr. Smith was by far the most passionate,” said Dave Babson, a county commissioner from Ossipee, “Mr. Brown didn’t really convince me with his agricultural connection.”
Voters left unconvinced by Brown do have other options. Just ask Bob Smith
“Well, I’m the only constitutional conservative in the race,” said Smith at a Conway debate. “I’m the only conservative in the race,” he added after a pause.
Smith is far to the right of his opponents on most issues, and he believes those positions will help him pry support from Brown.
“The fact that he voted for the Democrats more than the Republicans, the fact that he was for Dodd-Frank which was a regulatory bill, the fact that he’s for gun-control, the fact that he’s pro-abortion,” said Smith, ticking down his list, “All of those things I disagree with.”
Smith has won five elections in New Hampshire, but none since 1996.
He would have you believe his experience helps, but it also hurts. Republican voters who remember him may also remember his quixotic behavior in Washington: from passionate floor speeches on behalf of circus elephants to his quitting the Republican Party only to rejoin when offered the chance to be a committee chairman.
Republican voters tossed Smith in favor of John E. Sununu in 2002. He left New Hampshire, and in 2004 he endorsed Democrat John Kerry for President. For these reasons among others, plenty of Republicans think Smith isn’t electable.
Henry Mock from Jackson says for his money, it’s got to be Scott Brown.
“I am looking for the person who can’t beat one of the worst senators we’ve ever sent to Washington, Jeanne Shaheen, and I think he’s the one that can do it.”
So where’s a dissatisfied primary-voter to go, when confronted with a moderate on one hand and a conservative who has proven erratic?
“Hi there, Jim Rubens Candidate for US senate here in New Hampshire, looking to replace career politician Jeanne Shaheen and get this country turned around,” former state senator Jim Rubens introduced himself to a shop-owner while street canvasing in Manchester recently.
“We’ve got a boatload of problems,” he adds enthusiastically.
Rubens is the only major candidate to have never won a state-wide election, and his positions that make him hard to pigeonhole. He wants campaign finance reform. He also opposes stricter gun laws. He wants to repeal Obamacare, but believes Roe vs. Wade should be allowed to stand.
“If you want someone who does not bring fresh thinking to the table, if you want someone who doesn’t bring solutions to the table to fix these problems, there are other candidates you can go with,” said Ruben.
Rubens is also one of only a handful of Republican office-seekers who believe climate change is a problem. However, he ditched his proposal for a revenue neutral carbon tax, and now advocates eliminating energy subsidies of all kinds.
“I’ve come up with an approach that conservatives accept, even those who don’t buy climate science.”
But Rubens, who has been running a largely self-funded campaign for almost a year, has struggled. Voters haven’t given him much attention.
Andy Smith, a UNH political scientist, says Scott Brown was able to box out his opponents by sending signals early on that he might run for the seat.
“By putting the word out or letting people know that he was considering a run that locked up a lot of money and potential support for him,” says Smith.
Rubens’ candidacy has drawn the support of two super PACs, but that has yet to translate to support.
A Dead Heat
A UNH poll released last week shows that both he and Bob Smith have a lot of ground left to make up. Brown outpolled both in favorability by more than two to one.
“Brown is much better known and liked among Republicans, he’s got better financial support than his other challengers. So he’s not a shoe-in but he’s certainly in a much stronger position than other republicans.
In other words, Brown looks good in the primary.
At the debate in Conway, Smith and Rubens took pot-shots at Brown’s record, but Brown simply said his opponents were both good people
“You know we’ll just keep working doing that typical, New Hampshire grass-roots campaign. Going to people’s living rooms, businesses, county fairs and parades, road races, triathlons, where I meet 1,500 plus people every race. So it’s been fun I’ve enjoyed the whole process.”
And with Brown polling in a statistical dead heat with Jeanne Shaheen in the latest UNH poll, should he take the win on September 9th this race will be one to watch.