MANCHESTER, N.H. – On the day before their last debate, Jeanne Shaheen and Scott Brown made life difficult for their pursuers. I pulled into one of the security checkpoints at the Seabrook Station power station shortly before 1 p.m. Brown, the Republican candidate for Senate, had been trying to remind voters that Shaheen, the Democratic senator, once “made an effort to stop” cheap nuclear power. An LED, visible from the road in, glowed with a welcome message for Brown and quote machine/former Gov. John Sununu.
Alas, no press. “It’s closed to the public,” said a friendly guard. “Employees only.” As I drove out, Brown drove in, unmistakable in the green GMC pickup truck that had co-starred in countless TV ads. The guard who’d turned me away leaned in for a handshake; my unglamorous sedan continued on to Manchester, where Sen. Shaheen was finishing a speech at Dyn, a web company on the waterfront.
This speech, too, was inside – and this was important. Only reporters and Dyn employees could see Shaheen take a tour and remind potential voters that she’d backed tax credits for companies like these. Two trackers were waiting outside in the hopes of grabbing something more spontaneous. One worked for Brown. The other worked for Citizens for a Strong New Hampshire, a 501(c)4 that had been tracking Democrats all year, and was currently suing over Shaheen’s 2012 letter to the IRS about “social welfare” groups getting involved in politics. (This, according to the Citizens’ legal counsel, amounted to the IRS “trying to inject itself into the election process,” which would be terrible.)
Both trackers were stymied. They paced, looking bored, as Shaheen aides exited the front of the Dyn offices and the senator escaped out back. There would be no sequel to videos like “Senator Jeanne Shaheen’s union intimidation” or “Do only certain New Hampshire veterans matter to Senator Shaheen?” The material was so thin that the Shaheen aides, who were telling me about the campaign’s next moves, interrupted to note that a tracker was filming our conversation. Shaheen, who has run statewide in New Hampshire five times – and won four – has run a classic incumbent’s race. She shows up to remind voters what she’s brought them, and what the newbie can’t.
New Hampshire has been the platonic ideal of a 2014 Senate race. The Democrat made no real mistakes, nothing that rose to “gaffe” level, even with trackers on her scent. The Republican ran relentlessly against the Obama administration, insisting that the Jeanne Shaheen that voters liked had somehow been replaced by a yes-woman, and making the case that Isis and Ebola were symptoms of the administration’s incompetence.
Brown’s personal charisma simply hasn’t conquered New Hampshire like it conquered Massachusetts. The last CNN poll, which found a small Shaheen lead, found that 50 percent of voters viewed Brown unfavorably. One of the final polls in Brown’s 2012 Massachusetts race found that only 36 percent of voters disapproved of his job in office. Brown lost that one anyway.
But the closeness of New Hampshire – and it has been close since Labor Day, though with a persistent Shaheen lead – tells us most of what we need to know about 2014. Brown entered the race at a time when any Republican looked like a potential winner. He ran a nationalized campaign and waited for the voters, reporters, and news to catch up with him. Outside groups dove into the race, and he benefited enormously, even as he and Shaheen were transformed into candidate-shaped corks bobbing above a wave of third-party dollars.
Obamacare mattered. Brown began his campaign in March with an air-punching speech that condemned the “Obamacare Democrats” who were guilty of “shoving Obamacare at us,” and he promised voters “get rid of Obamacare once and for all.” He mentioned the health care law seven times in that campaign-opener. He never stopped running against it. No Republican ready did.
Since mid-summer, Democrats have insisted that the health care law has stopped turning voters against them. The anti-Obamacare attacks have faded since the winter of 2013/2014. Absolutely, the law is less unpopular, from 19 points underwater to around 14 points. The pollsters who advised Republicans not to run an entire election on Obamacare were listened to; the endless Obamacare spots, usually from outside social welfare groups, were cut back.
The ACA, which has always been a wealth transfer program, has disproportionately affected the voters who tend to come out in midterms. Just last week, Gallup found that the population of people who thought Obamacare hurt them, personally, had risen from 19 percent in November 2013 (after the HealthCare.gov debacle) to 27 percent. The population that felt helped rose from 9 percent to 16 percent. We’ve seen ads that tell voters of “$787 billion” or “$800 billion” that was “slashed” or “cut” from Medicare in 2010, 2012, and now 2014.
The president mattered, despite all efforts to the contrary. When defeated Democrats start assigning blame to the election, their named and anonymous rants to reporters will inevitably ask why he had to make those gaffes. Why did he say the phrase “these policies are on the ballot?” Why did he say that embattled senators were “folks that vote with me?” Why did they have to see his face and hear his voice in the TV ads and direct mail, again?
Better question: Why did they think they wouldn’t? Brown, who hosted some Fox News shows during his post-Senate blue period, has been unusually persistent about nationalizing the election. When a child migrant crisis arose along the border, Brown blamed the president. When the murderous daytrippers of the Islamic State made gains in the Levant, Brown blamed the president. When Ebola made it to America, Brown blamed the president. Had Mitt Romney only defeated Barack Obama, Brown was sure “we would not be worrying about Ebola right now and, you know, worrying about our foreign policy screw ups.”
Ebola may have been the weakest of Brown’s panic-button issues. (It’s amazing what a total lack of American deaths will do to the public’s fear of a virus). This was not a problem for him: Brown closed his campaign by warning of energy costs and a post-election immigration amnesty. “The president through his executive order what he’s proposing to do is actively expand the definition of refugee to somebody who’s here to work,” said Brown in his second debate with Shaheen. “I want to fight for jobs for New Hampshire.”
Shaheen accused Brown of “fear-mongering.” But the electorate always, always considers the president’s performance as it votes; it is always more likely to blame him for errors than reward his party for what works. In races that seemed to get away from the Democrats, in Colorado and Iowa, Republicans ran the same plays on ISIS and the border, and a worried electorate listened.
Megadonors won. After his final televised debate with Shaheen, Brown took a question about the money being flung at him. Shaheen, consistently, had outspent him, and Brown took the opportunity to sound gracious about it.
“We’re all gonna have outside groups coming in,” he said. I feel her pain as I’m sure she feels my pain of these groups coming in and distorting our records.”
She feels more of the pain. As of the last reports, Shaheen’s campaign had spent around $11.7 million to Brown’s $6.3 million. Brown’s kept up because around $15.5 million has been spent by outside groups either in support of his campaign or to oppose Shaheen’s. Only – well, “only” – around $13 million has blown the other way. That counts the ads run by Citizens for a Strong New Hampshire, but not the fringe benefit of Citizens trackers making Shaheen look horrible as she dodged questions, or shaming her (and other Democrats) for refusing to host more events or allow cameras into them.
Every Republican, and every embattled Democrat, has benefited from the new campaign finance reality. Brown is unique in that he saw an alternative, and rejected it. In 2012’s Senate race, Brown agreed to a “people’s pledge” with Elizabeth Warren, committing them to donate campaign funds to charity if Super PACs were dumb enough to meddle in the state. Shaheen asked Brown to sign a new pledge for 2014.
Brown called that “hypocritical and self-serving.” Nobody better understood what it took to win a campaign. American Crossroads, Americans for Prosperity, Ending Spending might get him to the Senate – him, a senator from another state, in a place that had not voted Republican for president since 2000. That was a blueprint they could roll out anywhere.