N.H. Senate Race May Turn on Obama’s Handling of ISIS
Policy + Politics

N.H. Senate Race May Turn on Obama’s Handling of ISIS

REUTERS/Dominick Reuter

If ever there was a Democrat who would benefit from a bump in President Obama’s popularity, it is Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, the former New Hampshire governor who is struggling to fend off a challenge from Republican transplant Scott Brown, a former Massachusetts senator.

In a state where Obama’s approval rating stands at a meager 38 percent – well below the national average – Brown has worked hard to link Shaheen to Obama’s  policies – especially his handling of the ISIS crisis in Syria and the Iraq.

Related: Fighting ISIS Could Mean Higher Ratings for Obama

 In his latest TV ad, Brown attempts to portray Obama and Shaheen as befuddled by global difficulties, while Brown, a one-time male model who had the dubious distinction of being named “America’s Sexiest Man” by the editors of Cosmopolitan magazine in 1982, is a steady hand who would work to restore U.S. leadership in the world.

“President Obama and Senator Shaheen seem confused about the nature of the [ISIS] threat, not me,” Brown declares, while looking directly into the camera. “I want to secure the border… and restore America’s leadership in the world.”

Brown, 55, a former Massachusetts state legislator and one-time Tea Party favorite, stunned the political world by winning the seat of the late senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) in a 2010  special election against Democratic state attorney general Martha Coakley. He then ran for a full term but lost to Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren in 2012. Brown subsequently became a Fox News commentator before he turned his sights on Shaheen’s Senate seat earlier this year.

Shaheen, 67, the first woman in U.S. history to be elected both a governor and senator, has largely focused her campaign on touting her numerous contributions to the Granite State, including saving jobs by preventing the closing of a shipyard and helping veterans obtain health care assistance, according to media reports.

Related: Shaheen Accuses Scott Brown of Being a ‘Carpetbagger’  

The first-term Senate Democrat has also relentlessly attacked Brown as a political carpetbagger who is more interested in reviving his political fortunes than looking out for the interests of average New Hampshire residents.

“I’ve been working for the people of New Hampshire for the past 18 years,” she said back in April. “This is my home. This is where my kids grew up…. My goal has been to serve the people of New Hampshire, not to serve myself.”

But she has been saddled by Obama’s extraordinarily low approval rating in the state, driven in large part by opposition to Obamacare, the president’s signature health care initiative. More recently, Brown has been gaining traction with voters by stressing immigration and national security issues, arguing that Shaheen “is not properly engaged” in the ISIS crisis, according to the Boston Globe.

Brown gave a foreign policy speech today at The New Hampshire Institute of Politics in Manchester and took potshots at both Obama and Shaheen:

“There comes a time when the man in charge has to answer for what happens on his own watch. … We expect our president to stay ahead of threats, and the Congress to help him do so.  And if President Obama and his team had met even that minimal standard, then I believe that the global security picture would look a lot better than it does right now.

Related: The Three Hottest Issues Dominating the Midterm Elections   

"They seem only more confused as things unravel.  It’s as if the Obama administration is maxed out, worn down, devoid of ideas, and now all the bills are coming due.  This is what foreign policy looks like without clarity and conviction.  This is what the world looks like without American leadership…. [Senator Shaheen] has a record that is readily summed up in a single number: 99 percent. That is how often she votes in support of any policy of the Obama administration, whatever it is.”

GOP strategists have begun to see national security and the crisis in the Middle East as a winning issue for them, The Wall Street Journal reported last weekend. Indeed, a Wall Street Journal/NBC news poll earlier this month showed that Republicans hold a 38-point advantage over Democrats when voters were asked which party would ensure a strong national defense.

Dante Scala, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, said in an interview on  Wednesday that “foreign policy turned out to be more significant” in his state’s Senate contest than he had anticipated.

“I think that’s just a reaction to current events,” he said. “Brown’s strategy initially was a message strategy centered on Obamacare. Since then, Obamacare is still in the mix, but Brown is all about ripping something from the headlines, and these days it’s ISIS and criticizing Obama’s failures on that particular issue -- and tying Shaheen to those failures.”

Related: The ISIS Coalition Is a Major Victory for Obama

Brown, an excellent retail campaigner who has crisscrossed the state, has narrowed Shaheen’s once substantial lead in the past couple of months, according to analysts. Still, Shaheen holds a five-point advantage over Brown -- 48 percent to 43 percent -- in cumulative polling dating, according to RealClearPolitics. One major exception was a CNN/Opinion Research poll conducted early this month showing the two deadlocked, 48 percent to 48 percent.

With many Americans of both parties and congressional leaders apparently rallying behind Obama after he ordered airstrikes against ISIS forces in Syria on Monday evening, the president is likely to get a bump in his approval ratings – a development that could help a handful of Senate Democrats struggling to fend off GOP challengers, including Shaheen.  

Jeff Jones, managing editor of the Gallup Poll, told The Fiscal Times on Tuesday that “It’s certainly possible the president will get a bump” from the attacks on ISIS.

With many political observers saying the New Hampshire Senate race will be determined more by the “national mood” than the efficacy of  Shaheen’s and Brown’s campaign styles, then a sudden improvement in Obama’s approval rating barely six weeks before the election might make a difference.

Related: The New Price Tag for the War Against ISIS

“Any little bit would help,” said Scala, the political science professor. “The question is how long-lived that bump might be. It might help a little, but given that we’re not going into a full blown [invasion] with ground forces and so forth, that rally-round-the-president and rally round the flag might not be the same.”

In summing up the race, Scala said that Shaheen is “walking a tightrope now” in a race profoundly impacted by the national mood.

“Shaheen is holding her own, but she is definitely swimming against the tide at this point,” he said. “She’s got to hold onto a significant portion of voters who don’t much like the president but are nonetheless willing to vote for her. And Brown has to [hold the GOP vote] and convince some of those [Democratic and independent] voters to come over to his side and basically make the argument that a vote for her is a vote of approval for Barack Obama.”

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