In late 2011, as Maggie Hassan prepared to enter the race for Governor of New Hampshire, there were more than a few indications this would not be an easy race. The Republican landslide of 2010 had been particularly devastating in New Hampshire, where Democrats lost an open U.S. Senate race, both Congressional seats and more than 100 seats in the state House to fall deep into a minority. Democrat John Lynch, one of the most popular Governors in the country, attracted just 54 percent of the vote, double digits below his previous majorities. The fact that Democrats had controlled the Governor’s office for 14 of the previous 16 years led Republicans to believe they had their best chance in a long time in this tax-sensitive, swing state.
Hassan, the former New Hampshire Senate Majority Leader, faced a number of challenges, the first being a spirited and aggressive primary challenge from a former Senate colleague and woman. Her opponent designed her campaign around one issue that could be particularly compelling to Democratic primary voters—a statewide income tax. Hassan’s opponent defined this stance—an openness to an income tax—as a badge of courage and values with the implication being Hassan did not have strong principles and was not willing to take on the big fights.
Hassan and her campaign recognized the potential power of the opposition's argument but also understood the dangers in allowing a state income tax to become the defining issue in the general election. Armed with research, the Hassan campaign devised a strategy to assert her clear opposition to an income tax while also demonstrating to primary voters (and swing voters who happened to be watching) that she would stand up for core principles and issues of education, health care and women’s issues during a period of attacks against women’s rights and health care from Republicans in Washington and New Hampshire. Hassan unveiled her “Innovate NH” jobs plan that captured both the pro-business mood of the state along with a commitment to education.
Hassan won the primary by a much wider margin than initially expected, 17 points, while putting herself in a strong position in a very short General Election. She quickly seized the initiative in the general by defining her candidacy as pro-business, pro-innovation, pro-education and anti-income tax. In contrast, she defined her opponent as a candidate with extreme ideas that would hurt women and families and stop the progress in the state. Hassan had a very strong presence that is also reassuring to people, and she was able to communicate much of her message in ads throughout the campaign. Hassan won a convincing victory by 12 points, in what was considered by both sides to be a toss-up for much of the year.