When Democrat Carol Shea-Porter first ran for congress 8 years ago, few gave her much of a shot. Most of the powers that be in the democratic party lined up behind someone else, and her campaign was a decidedly hand to mouth operation.
“Well nobody, got paid first of all, so you didn’t have to get that much money if nobody gets paid,” explains Caroline French. Back then she was in charge of making sure Shea-Porter got to her events on time.
French says that first campaign was won on pure enthusiasm.
“We were very organic in that we just did things and then we came back and said what we had done,” she explains.
The campaign went town by town to gather voter lists because they couldn’t afford to purchase databases. When they printed cards to hang on door-knobs, Bob Perry – another volunteer and a democratic state rep – says he had to punch out the holes for every hanger by hand.
“I remember doing that in front of Laurie’s house; I was pounding them out on her stone wall. So that’s how fundamental it was in the beginning,” Perry recalls.
Shea-Porter is once again locked in a close race with Frank Guinta over who will represent New Hampshire’s first congressional district. Shea-Porter is no stranger to tight contests: going back to her first race in 2006 she’s rarely been the clear favorite.
This time, as in previous races, she’ll be counting on her grassroots network to get her through what polling suggests is a tough year for Democrats.
These days Shea-Porter can count on support from big national groups. For instance the Sierra Club endorsed her, and is paying a staff member to help the campaign full time until the election. What’s more, to date the campaign has raised and spent substantially more money than Frank Guinta’s, though as of the end of September, the Guinta campaign had more cash on hand.
She has now won the seat, which by some measures is the most competitive in the country, three of the four times she’s run.
“The grassroots is still very much there, I still rely on them,” Shea-Porter said in a recent interview when asked how this support has changed the race’s dynamic. “I don’t take any corporate PAC money or DC lobbyist money, so I’m still following the same rules I set for myself and promised everybody in 2006.”
Shea-Porter says, if her campaigns have changed, that’s because outside money is changing campaigns in general. “Just turn your television on, everybody knows, you see one and after another after another,” she explained.
But so far even the flood of Super-PAC spending has broken in Shea-Porter’s favor.
Who Shows Up
Most polls say the race is a toss-up, and it’s the Republicans’ best chance for picking up a seat in New Hampshire.
In a mid-term election it’s all about which voters show up, and thanks to the president’s falling popularity, Guinta supporters like Romeo Lacasse – a developer from Laconia – are expected to be out in force.
This map, a composite of election results from the last 4 races, shows the towns the candidates have to work hardest to win over. Sixteen towns, including big population centers like Laconia and Rochester, have flipped between Democrat and Republican 3 times in the last four elections.
“I think he’s much better than Carol Shea-Porter as far as issues that I’m concerned about,” said Lacasse in front of the Laconia town hall, “Taxes, regulations, all the stuff that’s coming out of the federal government at this point.”
If Shea-Porter is going to win, she has to reach occasional voters like Manchester residents Justin and Rebecca Martin. They favor an increased minimum wage, and more access to affordable student loans, but if you ask who they voted for last time, they struggle to recall.
“No, I know I voted presidency, but as far as any other governor type voting? I couldn’t even tell you,” says Rebecca Martin, laughing.
Shea-Porter’s supporters believe that their network of door-knockers and phone-bankers are up to this task. Even if the national tide is flowing against democrats, they believe their operation is geared to resist it.
“If you’re running a real grassroots campaign, and like I said I don’t think we see very, very many of those at all, I think that’s a whole different dynamic to be honest with you,” says Lucy Edwards, another long-time Shea-Porter foot-soldier, “It’s people to people, people talking to people.”
In just a few weeks the Shea-Porter campaign will find out if that’s true.