For all they tell voters in ads, speeches and debates, New Hampshire’s major U.S. Senate candidates often keep one detail close to the vest: party affiliation.
In a sign of the political times, there’s been scant use of the two major-party labels before today’s primary to pick the nominees for the seat Republican Judd Gregg is vacating, said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire’s political polling.
“I see next to nobody saying they are either Republican or Democrat on their signs in the Senate race,” said Smith, who has tracked New Hampshire politics for 25 years. “This is the first year it became very clear for me that people are avoiding partisan labels.”
It’s easy to see why the lone Democrat seeking the Senate post, U.S. Representative Paul Hodes, eschews the “D,” said Smith. “It’s just a bad year to be a Democrat,” he said.
For leading Republican candidates Kelly Ayotte, Jim Bender, Bill Binnie and Ovide Lamontagne, getting too close to the “R” can trigger criticism of being a party insider, Smith said.
In this year’s political environment, that could turn off voters, said Lamontagne.
“I want to communicate to the people that I’m going to be an independent voice and not beholden to the party bosses and the special interests in Washington,” he said.
Binnie, though, in some broadcast ads identifies himself as a Republican who supports abortion rights.
Nationally, an anti-incumbent mood among voters this year helped derail renomination bids by three senators -- Republicans Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Bob Bennett of Utah and Democrat Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. In Delaware’s Republican Senate primary today, RepresentativeMike Castle, backed by state party officials, is trying to fend off a challenge from Christine O’Donnell, who is stressing her “outsider” status.
Poll data illustrate why candidates might eschew party labels, said Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll in Princeton, New Jersey. An Aug. 27-30 Gallup survey with a margin of error of 4 percentage points showed the approval rating for congressional Democrats at 33 percent, while the figure for Republicans was 32 percent.
“So if I were running for office, I too might say, I’m against those people in Washington, I’m not going to tell you what I am, I’m just not them,” Newport said.
In New Hampshire, the preponderance of undeclared or independent voters offers another reason for candidates to play down their party affiliation, Hodes said. Undeclared voters number 388,220, compared with 267,725 Democrats and 266,077 Republicans, according to Secretary of State Bill Gardner’s website. The unaffiliated voters can vote in the primary of their choice.
Political sign-makers in the state, Scott Fitzgerald, owner of FASTSIGNS in Manchester, and Mike Hammar of Hammar & Sons Sign Company in Pelham, say they’ve seen a recent decrease in use of party labels on their products. Requests have dropped even for a small donkey, designating a Democrat, or a small elephant, for Republicans, that Hammar used to put on some of his creations.
“I think these candidates are scared to lose a vote,” said Fitzgerald.
Job creation is a key issue for the candidates even as New Hampshire’s economy is healthier than that in many states. With 1.3 million residents, New Hampshire posted a 5.8 percent unemployment rate in July, compared with the 9.5 percent national figure for that month.
While Democrat Hodes hasn’t spotlighted his party membership, he has been criticized in ads by the American Action Network, a national group that promotes limited government, over his votes for health-care overhaul, stimulus legislation and the federal bailout for U.S. automakers. As the ad’s narrator says, “Tell Congressman Hodes to stop voting for reckless spending,” the viewer sees a “D” under the lawmaker’s name.
“I don’t think it’s effective,” said Hodes, whose latest television ad makes no mention of his party.
Republican Bender, 57, said he uses his label sparingly, in part, because of voters like a husband and wife he encountered - - both Democrats -- who had been out of work for a year.
“It didn’t matter that I was a Republican; at this point they are willing to vote for someone who can help,” he said.
Ayotte, a former state attorney general, is viewed by analysts as the frontrunner in the Republican race, and her supporters include former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, the party’s 2008 vice presidential nominee. Ayotte’s challengers have sought to use against her the support she has gained from national Republican officials.
“Kelly has been funded by the Republican machine,” Binnie said in an interview. “She’s very much the insider.”
Ayotte was unavailable for comment, according to spokesman Jeff Grappone. Palin’s endorsement of her in July included a reproach of Binnie, a businessman, for running as a “self- funded millionaire with an R next to his name.”