Sen. John E. Sununu is in serious political trouble, and it’s largely no fault of his own.
The first-term New Hampshire Republican is one of the most vulnerable sitting members of Congress facing re-election this year, a victim of surging anti-Republican and anti-Bush sentiments that have swept the Granite State in recent years.
Democratic challenger, the former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen - who lost to Mr. Sununu for a Senate seat six years ago - has had double-digit leads in polls for most of the past year. And while the incumbent has closed the gap in some recent polls, Mrs. Shaheen is still the favorite to win in November.
“It’s going to be hard for him to fight against the general tide that’s an uphill battle for all Republicans (nationwide), and I think that’s what’s really bringing him down,” said John Fortier of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. “I don’t think there’s any firing offense for Sununu, but it’s a tough year for Republicans.”
Mr. Sununu hasn’t committed any major gaffes, nor broken any significant campaign promises. Yet his close ties with President Bush, including his support for the Iraq war, has given Mrs. Shaheen easy political ammunition to attack the incumbent.
“He is a very accomplished, ambitious young legislator, so it’s not that he’s done a bad job,” Mr. Fortier said. “It’s just that his party is having a very tough time, and he has a very strong opponent.”
New Hampshire, despite a tradition of voting Republican, also has been shifting Democratic in recent election cycles. Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore in 2000 lost to Mr. Bush by one percentage point. Four years later, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry beat Mr. Bush by the same margin.
The state, which has seen a steady migration of residents from Massachusetts in recent years, also voted for former President Bill Clinton twice in the 1990s.
“In some ways (Mr. Sununu) has got many things going for him - except that he is a Republican at a time when there’s this shift, and no one knows ultimately how strong this shift will be,” said Steven Hill of the New America Foundation, a centrist Washington think tank. “But if we’re playing the guessing game than, yeah, this [race] leans Democrat.”
A Rasmussen Reports phone survey released Wednesday shows Mrs. Shaheen attracting 51 percent of the vote, compared with 40 percent for Mr. Sununu, who the pollster calls “the most endangered incumbent of Election 2008.”
If “leaners” are factored into the race, Mrs. Shaheen has a 52-43 percent lead.
Mr. Sununu had pulled to within five percentage points of Mrs. Shaheen according to Rasmussen’s July survey of the race.
Many Republican Party leaders earlier this year privately had all but conceded losing the race. But not all political experts say Mr. Sununu can’t win.
The popularity of Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, who won the New Hampshire primaries this year and in 2000, will give Mr. Sununu a significant boost, many conservative analysts say.
“It’s an evenly divided state” politically, said Brian Darling, director of Senate relations at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. “If [Mr. Sununu] is the beneficiary of what we’re seeing in the presidential race - a trend for this race to be close and for states to vote along traditional lines - he probably has a chance to take himself out of the most endangered category.”
A University of New Hampshire poll conducted last month - one of the most recent surveys on the race - shows Mrs. Shaheen with 46 percent of the vote, compared with 42 percent or Mr. Sununu. An April poll by the university showed Mrs. Shaheen with a 12 percentage point lead.
Mr. Sununu has a significant fundraising edge over Mrs. Shaheen, including more than twice as much cash on hand as of June 30, although the advantage isn’t expected to make a significant difference in a small state where much politics is retail.
“There’s no question Jean Shaheen will have the money she needs to be competitive in this race - the Democrats are going to make sure of that,” Mr. Hill said.
Mr. Hill added that in New Hampshire, a state with deep libertarian persuasions and where voters often view politicians with suspicion, excessive media exposure can backfire on a candidate.
“The candidate that wins (in New Hampshire) is the one voters are least sick of by the time election day rolls around,” he said.