Guinta And Shea-Porter Both Reading From The Same Playbook

Oct 25, 2012

Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR

This time around in the first congressional district the names are the same but the roles are flipped; Republican Frank Guinta, once the challenger, is now the incumbent. But that’s not the only way this year’s race is like a mirror image of last election.

When Congressman Frank Guinta goes out knocking on the doors of independents in Manchester – his political backyard – most everybody knows who he is.

Guinta: Good Morning!

Emmick: Hey Congressman Guinta. Hey Grace, do you want to meet a congressman? This is Congressman Guinta. This is Grace.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that every door that opens has a smiling supporter on the other side, which is the case with Gus Emmick.

Emmick: Unfortunately I have to say this but I’m voting for your opponent [oh, okay]. And it’s not as much about you personally as it is about the Republican Congress in general.

Emmick’s frustration with the gridlock in Congress is what Democrats are banking on this election season, and Carol Shea-Porter’s campaign is no exception. The tactic so far has been to call him extreme and obstructionist, mostly by linking him to the tea-party.

Ads: As a voice for the tea-party, Congressman Frank Guinta voted to gut the program ... Tea-Party congressman Frank Guinta voted for billions in cuts to veterans programs and opposed.

But even as the Shea-Porter campaign tries to tie him to the House of Representatives in voter’s minds, the Guinta campaign may be trying to obscure what has traditionally been an advantage: his incumbency.

Robocall: Beep… hi this is Frank Guinta, Candidate for Congress running against Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter.

That was a robocall that the Guinta campaign ran in August and again just a few weeks ago.

There is nothing inaccurate about Guinta calling himself Candidate Frank Guinta, and his opponent Congresswoman Shea-Porter. But an uninformed voter listening to that call might think that Guinta was the challenger, and not the other way around.

UNH professor Dante Scala says, that’s the point.

Scala: If a congressman could get away with running against Congress, this would certainly be the year to try and do that, given how very unpopular Congress is these days.

Not that this is a new technique.

Scala notes in 2008 when Shea-Porter was an incumbent running against Jeb Bradley – who she had unseated two-years before – a mailer from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee walked the same fine line.

Scala: That mail, if you looked at it and that alone, you would have thought that Jeb Bradley was the incumbent in the district.

The first congressional district covers most of the Eastern half of the state. It stretches from the sea-coast to Jackson and North Conway, and includes cities like Manchester, Portsmouth, Laconia and Rochester.

Over the past decade it has developed into a pure swing district: It’s one of only a handful in the country that has an even Partisan Voting Index. That means, its demographics predict that it will swing with the national trends this election.

And the two candidates running here fit pretty neatly into the national narrative of a deep left right fissure. For example, though he hasn’t been so enthusiastic about the Tea-Party this election, they were certainly key in pushing him into office last time around.

Here he is at a Tea-Party rally in 2009.

Guinta: This is America. This is grassroots effort at its finest, you all should be congratulated for standing up for your values, your right and the responsibility that we all have as americans to tell our leaders stop spending our money!

Guinta has been pretty representative of this years freshman class of legislators: he voted for the Ryan budget, and to repeal the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare. He also signed Grover Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge, vowing to never raise taxes or eliminate deductions.

He climbed through the conservative political ranks in New Hampshire – as a State Representative, as a staffer for Jeb Bradley, and as Mayor of Manchester – earning a reputation as a tax-fighter as he did. His politics and run for Congress coincided perfectly with the national trends and he beat Shea-Porter decisively – by 12 points.

Guinta: We are going to make sure that we retire the debt and deficit, and we are going to make sure that we actually start balancing our budgets for a change.

For her part, Shea-Porter has a heritage that’s equally tied to the forces at play in the  Democratic party as she became involved. She started with as an anti-war activist, following the then incumbent, Jeb Bradley, around the state vocally demanding an end to the Iraq war.

Here she introduces herself in a video made during her first run for the seat in 2006.

Shea-Porter: Some of you may not know me, but I can assure you Jeb Bradley knows me, he knows me very well, and I know him, because for the past two years I have been going to Jeb Bradley’s town hall events, begging him, imploring him to please speak up for the people of New Hampshire.

Her fervor and willingness to speak up made her the darling of Progressive New Hampshire Democrats, and helped her beat her establishment opponent – Jim Craig – in the 2006 primary. And next, even more surprisingly, she won in an upset over incumbent Jeb Bradley, again pushed into office by a national trend: anti-Bush sentiment.

Shea-Porter: We have shown tonight as indeed we have shown for the past year that working together we can make this change, that we can turn the direction of this country back to the place that we want to be [applause]

Once in office, Shea-Porter mostly stuck to the party line, though she and 32 other democrats broke out and voted against sending more supplemental funds to the war in Iraq in 2009.

The politics of the Guint and Shea-Porter are about as far apart as they can conceivably be: the Washington Post reported that they voted with their party leadership 96% and 98% percent of the time, respectively. The two disagree on basically every hot button issue: health care, letting the Bush tax cuts expire,  job creation, the fiscal cliff.

This led to some spirited debates.

Shea-Porter: you have not been helpful to the renewable energy, but by the way… [Guinta: What subsidies are you talking about? what subsidies are you talking about?] … this is my time, I’m going to continue on my time … [Guinta: that’s just false, no that’s just false] … so let me just say that I do believe [fades out]

They do agree on certain subjects, namely ones that concern key voting blocs inside their district. Like whether to build a VA hospital in New Hampshire, and voting to protect the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

Those are the votes that both like to talk about whenever they’re in front of such constituencies, like when Shea-Porter speaks at the Portsmouth Rotary Club.

Shea-Porter: We have a lot of enemies around the world, we have to have a strong defense that’s the reason that I’ve been so bullish on our ship yard, and so concerned about what will happens if the sequester comes there.

Watching this race, it can almost seem like they are reading from the same playbook, though playing from opposite sides of the field.

And sometimes those efforts can seem like they are bearing fruit. Rotarian Justin Finn, an independent who voted for Guinta last time, allows himself to vacillate after hearing Shea-Porter speak.

Finn: The military is very important to me, I was born on Pease Airforce base, so I come from a big military family. So the more I know about her, yeah, I think she’s yeah, she’s nice.

But really, just for a second.

Finn: She was the congresswoman before, she lost her job and now she wants to be rehired. So I just want to know why we should rehire her because there’s not a whole lot of difference that she said today that wasn’t back there a couple years ago when she was in office. So I would give, if it was today and I had to vote, I would give a slight edge to Guinta.

This week a poll from the UNH Survey Center found Guinta and Shea-Porter to be neck and neck: Guinta holding a slight edge that is smaller than the margin of error.

If that holds for the next two weeks, the contest will come down to turnout, which is to say, who can energize the most voters on Election Day. And turnout in a presidential year, is mostly driven by how many voters want to see Barack Obama or Mitt Romney in the president’s office.

Such is the nature of running for office in a bellwether district.