Challenging an Entrenched Incumbent: Jeanne Shaheen


In 2007, New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen challenged incumbent Senator John Sununu in a rematch of their 2002 faceoff that had sent Sununu to the Senate. On the behalf of the Shaheen campaign, GQR conducted baseline polling and focus groups that highlighted important contrasts between the two candidates. Based on this research, GQR helped devise a strategy that emphasized the need for a leader like Jeanne Shaheen, who would work for a new direction in Washington to help New Hampshire families. On Election Day, the Shaheen campaign prevailed by a 7-point margin, 52 -- 45 percent.

Situation

In 2002, as sitting Governor, Jeanne Shaheen took on then-Congressman John Sununu in a contest for U.S. Senate. In the tax sensitive “Live Free or Die” state, the race became a referendum on taxes. Sununu defined himself as a fiscal conservative, while he and several 3rd party groups attacked Shaheen’s record as Governor, labeling her as a tax and spender. On Election Day, Sununu defeated Shaheen by 5 points, 51 - 46 percent, with 3 percent going to other candidates.

By 2007, Sununu had honed a reputation among the New Hampshire media as being a generally independent-minded legislator, and Time Magazine named him among the top “up and comers” in the U.S. Senate. Yet, at the same time, he had overwhelmingly supported the Bush agenda and had built a record of voting against the interests of New Hampshire’s families. In September 2007, Governor Shaheen decided to challenge the incumbent again to offer an alternative to an electorate yearning for change.

To win, Shaheen’s campaign, with the help of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, needed to craft a narrative that put Shaheen firmly on the side of New Hampshire voters while neutralizing the negative attacks that were sure to resurface.

Solution

Early in the campaign, voters connected with Governor Shaheen as someone who listened and looked out for them as Governor, as someone who was deeply tied to New Hampshire. But it was clear that they needed to be reminded of the specifics of her accomplishments as Governor to validate her ability to be a strong, effective Senator and make progress on a forward-looking agenda centered on helping New Hampshire families.

And while Sununu was viewed by some as an independent voice, he was largely undefined, and once voters learned more about his record, his image as an independent was peeled away. GQR’s research showed that Sununu’s record of voting with Bush 90 percent of the time and putting corporate interests ahead of New Hampshire’s interests raised serious concerns for voters.

At the same time, the campaign would focus the central contrast on Sununu’s loyalty to the Bush economic plan that drove the economy into the ground and failed New Hampshire.

Sununu and his allies aimed to win the race by making two critiques of Shaheen. First, that she was a tax and spender, one of their central arguments in the 2002 contest. Second, that Shaheen flip flopped on issues like taxes and the war in Iraq, and that she could not be counted on to maintain strong positions.

Because of this, we were able to accomplish two key goals.

First, the Shaheen campaign defined the race as a referendum on the Bush-Sununu failed economy. When we asked voters during the final weeks which bothered them more—Sununu’s support for Bush's economic policies or Shaheen’s taxing and spending—Sununu’s support for Bush’s economy trumped Shaheen as tax and spender by 6 points. Moreover, an astounding 67 percent said Sununu followed Bush’s policies too much.

Second, the Shaheen team neutralized the taxing and spending issue with tough charges on Sununu for runaway spending. Shaheen and her campaign were aggressive in pointing out Sununu’s record of supporting giveaways to big oil and drug companies, and spending that doubled the deficit and wrecked the economy. 

Methodology

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner played an integral role in defeating John Sununu from early on, providing polling and focus group research for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in early 2007. GQR joined the Shaheen team in mid-2007, offering a full range of strategic research and advice for the campaign’s message, television advertising, direct mail communications, field outreach, and targeting.