Former Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter has a history of infuriating party strategists by insisting on running her own races without outside coaching or robust fundraising. Even so, she was able to knock off Republican Rep. Frank Guinta in a hard-fought rematch of their 2010 contest.
Shea-Porter was born in New York City and moved to New Hampshire at age 14. Her mother, Margaret (Peggy) Shea, was an antiques appraiser and a descendent of John Stark, a general in the Continental Army who coined the term “Live Free or Die” that would become New Hampshire’s motto. During high school, Shea-Porter’s guidance counselor recommended that she go to secretarial school. “It wasn’t based on anything. I had good grades, good [test] scores,” she recalled in an interview. Shea-Porter had higher ambitions than secretarial work and enrolled in the University of New Hampshire. She eventually earned her master’s degree in public administration in 1979.
She moved to Colorado with her husband, an officer stationed at an Army medical center. There she witnessed soldiers returning from the Vietnam War in need of medical and psychological care, an experience that would contribute to her antiwar candidacy decades later. She went to New Orleans, where she worked as a social worker, then relocated to the Washington area. At that time, Shea-Porter taught politics and history at a community college and a retirement facility.
Returning to New Hampshire in 2001, she worked on retired Gen. Wesley Clark’s 2004 presidential primary campaign and served as the chairman of the Rochester Democrats, cultivating a network of liberal activists. She started following Republican U.S. Rep. Jeb Bradley from event to event, asking pointed questions about the issues. She got the media’s attention with a stunt in February 2005 when Shea-Porter was escorted from a town-hall meeting with President Bush: She removed her sweater to reveal a T-shirt that read, “Turn your back on Bush.”
National Democrats questioned her viability in a general election against Bradley, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee backed state House Minority Leader Jim Craig in the four-way primary. But Shea-Porter pulled off an upset, and in the fall challenged Bradley, who outspent her by 3-to-1. She campaigned on an anti-Iraq war platform and advocated the creation of a federal institute dedicated to reducing dependence on foreign oil. Bradley defended Bush on Iraq and argued that withdrawing troops would destabilize the Middle East. Shea-Porter eked out a win, 51 percent to 49 percent.
In the House, she established a centrist voting record. In June 2008, Shea-Porter joined most Democrats in voting against funding for the Iraq war. On the Education and Labor Committee, she sought major changes in the Bush administration’s 2001 No Child Left Behind law, which she compared to a “beautiful-looking car [that] doesn’t start.” Shea-Porter dispatched Bradley in a rematch in 2008.
In 2010, she drew a challenge from Guinta, a former Manchester mayor. He called for government hiring freezes and cast Shea-Porter as a big spender. She parried that Guinta wanted to slash vital federal programs, such as Social Security. In a favorable year for Republicans, he won by 12 percentage points.
In the 2012 rematch, Guinta outraised Shea-Porter as the two candidates continued to debate entitlements and the value of the 2009 stimulus package. At an October debate, they clashed over the fallout from attacks on the U.S. consulate in Libya that killed the U.S. ambassador and three others. Guinta accused her of minimizing the impact of the bombing. “You make it sound like it’s just a bump in the road, and I think that’s disappointing and it’s wrong,” he said. But in one of many tough New England races this year, Shea-Porter won back her seat.