CONTOOCOOK, N.H. — Wednesday was a quiet day in the New Hampshire Senate race. It could be the last for some time.
Former Massachusetts Republican senator Scott Brown, set to formalize his candidacy in the New Hampshire Senate race at a kickoff Thursday, has already clashed with Senator Jeanne Shaheen in a race that has surged into the national spotlight. Granite Staters, accustomed to vigorous ground-level campaigning every four years during their crucial presidential primary, are settling in for what many expect to be an embittered contest deluged with outside money.
Brown must still triumph in a Republican primary, but the contours of the possible general election are defining the race before it has formally begun.
“Both sides have good reason to throw the kitchen sink at each other,” said Dante Scala, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.
“This election’s really not about Scott Brown,” Scala said. “It’s about Jeanne Shaheen and whether there’s a majority out there who want to fire her. Brown’s got to deliver a very negative message against Shaheen and put her on the spot each and every day. On the other hand, Shaheen has to make Brown . . . as unappealing as possible.”
Both those efforts are already underway. Brown has sought to lash Shaheen to her support for the 2010 federal health care law. Shaheen has pressed Brown to sign a pledge limiting outside campaign spending, a way to highlight the deep-pocketed conservative donors expected to back Brown’s campaign.
For Brown, scheduled to deliver his announcement speech at the Portsmouth Harborside Hotel Thursday evening, it would be the third tough race in five years. One, against Attorney General Martha Coakley in 2010, ended in stunning victory. The second, against Elizabeth Warren in 2012, was a near-blowout loss.
To reach the general election, Brown must win a primary that includes former US senator Bob Smith, former state senator Jim Rubens, and Karen Testerman, a conservative activist.
Michael Dennehy, a prominent Republican New Hampshire lobbyist who was senior adviser to John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, said Brown needs to hustle to familiarize himself with the cast of GOP activists in the state and called Shaheen “without a doubt” the favorite.
“He’s not going to be able to skate through the primary, because Republican primary voters don’t let anyone do that, let alone someone who just moved to New Hampshire,” he said.
Dennehy agreed that the race would be “more of a referendum on Barack Obama and Jeanne Shaheen than it is on Scott Brown.”
A Brown adviser said Wednesday that the candidate’s kickoff speech would carry a “heavy ObamaCare focus,” signaling the campaign’s belief that attacks on Shaheen’s support of the health care law will prove durable through November. Brown will “also reference America’s standing in the world and how it has suffered under this president,” the adviser said.
The day before his long-teased announcement, Brown had no public schedule. Shaheen was in Washington, joining her party’s losing efforts to pass legislation geared at closing gender salary discrepancies.
Shaheen is no stranger to stiff electoral tests, either. A longtime Democratic operative, she was a three-term governor when she ran for US Senate in 2002 against Republican John E. Sununu, in a battle royale that pitted arguably the state’s two most prominent political families against one another.
‘He’s not going to be able to skate through the primary.’Michael Dennehy, Republican lobbyist, on GOP candidate Scott Brown
Shaheen lost that race, but came back at Sununu six years later, in a feisty contest backlit by the presidential campaign between Obama and McCain race. Shaheen won the rematch.
That race was “in many senses more intense than the presidential race with Obama and McCain,” Scala said. “She didn’t get there by being unrelentingly positive. She gave as good as she got, always.”
This race, campaign veterans in both parties said, could be more arduous.
“That was a tough race, but I don’t think you can draw an analogy to that race,” said state Senator Lou D’Allessandro, a Democrat. “This is a different world.”
New Hampshire Democrats describe Shaheen as a canny politician who has amassed chits across the state and beyond. As the only woman elected both senator and governor of any state, she enjoys national prominence.
Still, Democrats acknowledge uneasiness about her reelection in a national political climate widely seen as favorable to Republicans and potentially matched against another seasoned campaigner like Brown.
“They know what it means when someone comes in and changes the dynamic of the race,” D’Allessandro said of Shaheen’s campaign. “Obviously, the whole landscape changed when Brown came in, as you can see from the coverage he’s gotten.”
Brown’s resistance to the outside spending pact virtually ensured a flood of outside groups not bound by traditional campaign finance rules, further rattling Democrats
Shaheen is “about as New Hampshire as you can get,” said Will Kanteres, a longtime Democratic activist. “It’s going to be very hard for him to pull it off, but you never know, with that much money on the air.”
Part of Brown’s challenge will be turning Shaheen’s familiarity to voters into a negative, by portraying her as ripe for replacement and having “gone Washington.”
Indeed, while Shaheen is expected in the capital for Senate votes Thursday, Brown will largely have the local airwaves to himself, an inverse of the dynamic he faced in 2012 against Warren.Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at Jim.OSullivan@globe.com.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, the university affiliation of Dante Scala was incorrect in a previous version of this story.