NASHUA — Here in New Hampshire, Republican Scott Brown has developed a verbal tic.
He rarely utters the name of his opponent, Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen, without instantly mentioning President Obama and that she votes with him “99 percent of the time.” And he almost never speaks to residents without discussing national issues such as fighting the Islamic State, immigration, and the controversial health care law.
“We have a senator,” he told about a dozen seniors in Concord this week, “that is following in the shadow of the president.”
Political observers in the state increasingly see the competitive Senate race as being decided on just that: how long a shadow the unpopular president will cast on the race. And how much Shaheen, a former governor and decades-long political presence in New Hampshire, can shine a light on her accomplishments and focus the race on the former Massachusetts senator.
In television ads, and on the trail, Shaheen sticks to local achievements, underscoring the specific actions she has taken to help the state — working to protect this shipyard, build that bridge, get a bill passed that helped this New Hampshire business.
Unless asked, she generally avoids speaking about Obama, who twice won New Hampshire, but who polls have found now has a near-toxic approval rating among likely voters here. She underscores that the race, in her view, isn’t about him.
“The president’s not on the ballot this year,” Shaheen told reporters after touring a manufacturing company in Nashua this week. “Scott Brown and I on are on the ballot.”
The competing storylines are at the heart of a race that will help determine whether Republicans pick up the seats they need to take control of the chamber.
Brown’s “campaign has one focus: tie Senator Shaheen to Barack Obama,” said state Senator Lou D’Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat. “And the question is: Can Shaheen overcome that negative with what she has done for the state and with all her constituent services?”
Historically, the national environment tends to turn sour for members of the president’s party during his second midterm elections: Voters grow weary of the president in what’s known as the “six-year itch,” endangering members of his party in swing congressional districts and states.
This year is no different. Analysts see a darkening climate for Democrats nationally, as Americans sour on the president’s performance, including his handling of foreign policy issues.
Democratic incumbents in a number of competitive US Senate contests — including states Obama won — are doing their best to cast themselves as independent of the president.
“In a midterm, voters don’t have the option to vote against the president himself,” said Nathan L. Gonzales, deputy editor at the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “They can only voice dissatisfaction by voting against people in his party.”
In recent years New Hampshire has swung with the national climate. But Democrats here say the conditions that have allowed Obama to grow so unpopular — one poll this month found his job approval rating among likely voters at 38 percent — are deeper than that.
They say they are demographic: New Hampshire’s population skews older and is less diverse than the nation as a whole and than other swing states Obama won. Young people and minority voters were key parts of the coalition that helped twice sweep Obama to victory. And they say the conditions are also personal in a state that chose Hillary Rodham Clinton over Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.
George Bruno, a former US ambassador and former New Hampshire Democratic Party chairman, said Obama never having developed an intimate connection with the state — like other presidential candidates such as Bill Clinton and John McCain — is part of the reason he is deeply unpopular here now.
Clinton, Bruno said, was with the state “till the last dog died” and built profound relationships with operatives and organizers in every region of New Hampshire. Obama, not so much.
“This is the paradox of Barack Obama, who for all intents and purposes was a social worker, a community organizer, whose professional calling card is relationships and compassion for people,” he said. “And if you stand back and ask yourself, ‘Who are his best friends here? Who does he have a deep connection with?’ You’d have to scratch your head to come up with the answers.”
But, Bruno argued, Shaheen will be reelected despite Obama’s unpopularity. “She. Has. Those. Relationships,” he said, emphasizing each word.
They were on display as Shaheen toured WH Bagshaw Co., the manufacturing business in Nashua this week. The senator asked co-owners Aaron and Adria Bagshaw — who appeared in one of her TV ads — how the business has progressed since her last visit. She nodded affirmatively as Adria spoke about how Shaheen is a tireless advocate for small businesses across the Granite State.
In remarks, Shaheen cast herself as a staunch defender of New Hampshire workers and painted Brown as supporter of outsourcing jobs. She referenced Brown joining the board of a Massachusetts-based company, Kadant Inc., after losing his 2012 Massachusetts reelection race to Elizabeth Warren.
The Telegraph of Nashua reported last month that Brown has earned almost $300,000 sitting on Kadant’s board, a company “with a penchant for exporting jobs to cheap foreign labor alternatives such as China.”
Brown disputes Shaheen’s characterization and says he has a very strong record of voting for policies that help small businesses in the United States.
But he is mostly focused on playing offense these days. At a nursing home in Concord this week he criticized Shaheen’s engagement on the issue of the Islamic State, the group in Iraq and Syria.
In a new television ad, he ties Shaheen to Obama and says both “seem confused about the nature of the threat.” His campaign said he believes the United States should leave all strategic options on the table in the fight against the group, including putting US combat troops on the ground. Brown implies that Shaheen is insufficiently hawkish on the issue.
And in a speech Wednesday, he reminded listeners that Shaheen votes in lockstep with Obama and said the administration is worn down and devoid of ideas.
New Hampshire Republicans think the repetition is paying off.
“Senator Brown has a done a good job of tying Senator Shaheen to Obama,” said GOP strategist Jim Merrill. “That’s a very dangerous place for her to be.”
In Concord, Brown mentioned a barrage of television ads from Shaheen and Democratic allies had been savaging him. “I have everybody and their brother and sister and all the kitchen sinks in the country coming at me,” he said. “I’m the underdog, absolutely. But I like that role.”
Asked about the president’s approval rating in New Hampshire, Brown smiled and replied: “He should come and visit.”