LITTLETON, N.H. — With the Tea Party wind at their backs two years ago, voters here swung crimson. They expelled a rash of newly installed Democrats and elected two Republican congressmen, a Republican senator, and Republican super-majorities in both legislative houses.
But this election, like the rest of the country, New Hampshire appears split down the middle, with the top elective slots considered among the most competitive nationwide, fueled by out-of-state money and aggressive campaigns.
Polls for the governor’s race, along with two congressional seats, show contests too close to call, leaving campaigns scrambling in the final days to make their cases. Democrats are arguing that the Republicans elected in 2010 are radical ideologues bent on slashing education spending, restricting access to abortion, and repealing same-sex marriage; Republicans are seeking to tar Democrats as tax-and-spenders ill-suited to the task of job creation.
Add to that the presidential contest, which also remains a tossup in New Hampshire, with a once strong lead for President Obama having shrunk in recent weeks. The coattail effect of either a Mitt Romney or Obama win could, specialists say, propel down-ticket candidates.
“I can tell a plausible story where Democrats sweep or Republicans sweep,” said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.
If the Democrats win all the major contests, New Hampshire’s federal delegation would be all women, including its two senators and two House members, as would the governor.
As in the presidential race, Democrats have highlighted issues important to women, such as abortion and equal pay. Republicans have sought to redirect attention to fiscal issues.
Republican congressman Frank Guinta, in a rematch with Democrat Carol Shea-
Porter in the First District, and Ovide Lamontagne, the GOP gubernatorial candidate, are both prolife, with Lamontagne supporting an exception for when the mother’s life is in danger. Guinta in the past has said he supports no exceptions, but a spokesman declined to answer that question when asked this week.
The Republican incumbent in the Second Congressional District, Charles Bass, describes himself as prochoice, as do the three Democratic women vying for the congressional seats and the governor’s office.
Specialists say in races so close, issues like abortion could tip the scales. “[It] might not move a lot of votes, but it may move a few percent,” Scala said. “And that could make the difference.”
Michelle Pelletier, a 45-year-old deli worker at Simon’s Market in Littleton, is among that group.
“I don’t care for the fact that Ovide wants to take away our right to choose,” said Pelletier, an undeclared voter, who will probably back President Obama because she objects to Romney’s comments about the 47 percent of Americans who do not pay income taxes. “The government doesn’t have any business messing around with what an individual chooses.”
For that reason, she said, “if I had to go between the two, I’d have to go with Maggie,” referring to Maggie Hassan, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate.
Still, economic issues are at the forefront for many voters, even as unemployment in New Hampshire has remained consistently below national averages.
“While New Hampshire has done better than other states, it hasn’t done as well as it’s done in the past, and perception [among voters] is that they are suffering,” said Wayne Lesperance, a political science professor at New England College.
New Hampshire has usually been a reliably moderate state, often leaning Republican. The election in 2006 upended that calculus, when voters unhappy with the Iraq war delivered a landslide victory to the incumbent Democratic governor and installed Shea-Porter in the First Congressional District and Paul Hodes in the Second District.
In 2008, Democrats continued their march. Buoyed by President Bush’s unpopularity, Jeanne Shaheen defeated incumbent Republican Senator John Sununu, and Obama won the state. The election left Democrats with a hold on the governorship, majorities in both legislative houses, and a claim on three of the state’s four congressional seats. The state was declared purple, even blue, by some.
Then came 2010. Kelly Ayotte, backed by Sarah Palin, won a US Senate seat against Hodes. Republicans, including Tea Party-supported Guinta, won the state’s congressional seats, ousting Shea-Porter and claiming the seat vacated by Hodes. Republicans won supermajorities in the Legislature, which took on a decidedly Tea Party bent.
This newly reconfigured assembly embarked on an ambitiously conservative agenda: They declared weapons in the State House explicitly welcome. They slashed aid in half to the University System of New Hampshire cut payments to hospitals for the care of the poor, backed a proposal barring unions from collecting a share of bargaining and administrative costs from nonmembers (a measure vetoed by Governor John Lynch) and debated overturning same-sex marriage.
Democrats are seeking to make the races this year a referendum on the Legislature, which they say is out of touch with the state’s more moderate leanings.
“Ovide Lamontagne is in lock-step with the radical Legislature,” said Marc Goldberg, a spokesman for the Democratic gubernatorial contender. Hassan is a former state Senate majority leader who lost her seat in the 2010 Republican sweep.
Some Republicans, too, are eager to distance themselves. Spokesman Tom Cronin said Lamontagne’s “priorities would have been different from this Legislature . . . He did not serve in this last Legislature.”
Linda Fowler, a government professor at Dartmouth College, said the recent legislative sessions are likely going to play into voter thinking.
“There has been a lot of stuff going on that has made people go: ‘Whoa, maybe we were mad in 2010, but we didn’t bargain for this,’ ” she said.
The race between Lamontagne and Hassan has notable parallels to the 1996 governor’s race. Then, Lamontagne, a lawyer who was chairman of the state Board of Education, faced off with another female state senator, Jeanne Shaheen. That year, Shaheen won, becoming the first woman to win the state’s governorship.
Hassan, also a lawyer, enjoys the endorsement of Lynch, the popular outgoing Democratic governor, and could benefit from an electorate that tends to favor divided government. With the Legislature likely to remain in Republican control, a Democrat in the corner office may be attractive to some voters.
Specialists note that Lamontagne mixes a conservative message with a moderate temperament, making it harder to tag him a Tea Party ideologue. He could also be helped by the statewide campaign he ran when he vied in the 2010 Republican primary for US Senate. He lost to Ayotte, but the exercise ginned up his name recognition, particularly among Republicans.
But both face lingering questions with voters, Lesperance said. For Hassan, will she raise taxes despite pledging not to impose an income or sales tax? Will Lamontagne focus on the economy and not push a socially conservative agenda?
“On both sides, there is a trust issue,” Lesperance said.
The congressional races are rematches of the battles fought two years ago. Ann McLane Kuster, a lawyer, narrowly lost in 2010 to Bass, a former six-term congressman who was voted out of office in 2006. Shea-Porter, a former social worker, also lost in 2010 to Guinta, the former mayor of Manchester.
Both races have been marked by aggressive campaigning, particularly the Second District, where Republicans accused Kuster of grabbing a camera from a Bass staff member. Kuster has accused Bass of promoting a wood pellet company and later acquiring stock in it.
For Brian Larose, a 60-year-old retired businessman who lives in Littleton, the tone of that race may drive him to split his ticket. He plans to vote for Romney and Lamontagne, but is undecided about Bass and Kuster. “Both have been so negative,” he said. “you don’t want to vote for either of them.”
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