New Hampshire could be home to a rare political rubber match in 2014. Ask Granite State GOP insiders about potential opponents for Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, and one name always tops the wishlist: former Sen. John Sununu.
Shaheen defeated the Republican by 6 points with President Obama atop the ballot in 2008. Six years earlier, Sununu beat then-Gov. Shaheen by a similar margin. While the former senator has remained publicly silent about a potential third tilt with Shaheen, the New Hampshire Union Leader reported last month that he "has made it known privately" that he's considering a run. State Republicans are hopeful he will attempt the comeback bid, saying he represents the party's best chance of taking down a fairly well-positioned incumbent.
A WMUR-TV Granite State Poll conducted earlier this month showed Shaheen with solid numbers entering her reelection campaign. Fifty-nine percent of New Hampshire adults reported having a favorable opinion of the Democrat, while just 22 percent said they have an unfavorable view.
"Anybody who thinks that Sen. Shaheen is going to be easy to beat is kidding themselves," Republican National Committeeman Steve DuPrey said.
The GOP field could be in a holding pattern until Sununu makes up his mind. GOP operatives predict that if Sununu gets in the race, he'll clear the field of any other serious contenders. If the former senator passes, former Reps. Frank Guinta and Jeb Bradley both are rumored to be interested. Guinta lost his reelection bid last year in a rematch with Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter. Bradley, who lost his seat to Shea-Porter in 2006, is the majority leader of the state Senate.
Democrats say that the trio of Sununu, Guinta and Bradley represent a weak top tier for the GOP, arguing that all three have suffered high-profile losses within the past five years. "The GOP field in New Hampshire is predictably weak because Republicans know that Jeanne Shaheen has a strong record of fighting for New Hampshire’s middle class and is going to be reelected," Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Justin Barasky said.
But GOP operatives say the three potential Republican candidates are proven commodities and fundraisers in the state. Republicans are optimistic that the electoral struggles that often befall a second-term president's party in the midterm elections will create a difficult national environment for Democratic incumbents.
Beyond the top three, other Republicans mentioned as possible (but perhaps less likely) Senate candidates include former Gov. Steve Merrill and Bill Binnie, a businessman who unsuccessfully sought the GOP nod in 2010. WMUR's James Pindell recently floated Honeywell CEO David Cote for the seat. The potential self-financer could be a formidable candidate, but sources in the state doubt he'll mount a campaign.
Republicans are less optimistic about their chances against Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan in 2014, and the field of potential gubernatorial candidates is thinner, with less familiar names. Conservative activist Kevin Smith, who finished second in last year's GOP primary, is weighing another run. State Sen. Chuck Morse and a pair of businessmen, Chuck Rolecek and Steve Kenda, are viewed as potential contenders. Sununu, Guinta and Bradley are considered unlikely gubernatorial candidates.
Governors serve two-year terms in New Hampshire and rarely lose their first reelection bids. Hassan is attempting to position herself as a moderate in the mold of former Democratic Gov. John Lynch. With one of her first appointments, Hassan tapped a Republican who previously worked for Sununu and Bradley to head the state's Department of Resources and Economic Development.
"If she governs the way John Lynch did, I think it's going to make it extraordinarily difficult to beat her," Duprey said.