This February, just before the state presidential primary, New Hampshire Democrats gathered for a rally in Manchester. At that moment, the room was divided over who should be the party’s nominee for president.
But at the state level, there was no question about who’s in charge.
“This is Shaheen Country,” a public address announcer boomed into the SNHU Arena.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, her name in lights, walked to the stage accompanied by a blaring rendition of Tina Turner’s The Best.
(Editor's note: we highly recommend listening to this story.)
To many New Hampshire Democrats, that song is right on tune: more than any other politician in the past 30 years, Shaheen has come to define an era where Democrats compete - and often win - in races up and down the ballot. As she heads into Election Day seeking her third term in the U.S. Senate, after three terms as governor, Shaheen presides over a party that largely reflects her approach to politics: pragmatic, occasionally cautious, and eager to win.
That’s a far cry from what the political landscape once looked like in the state. From as far back as the 1920s, right up until the mid-1990s, Democrats were generally an afterthought.
“The state of New Hampshire would allow a Democrat to be governor of the state about once a generation,” said Dayton Duncan, who worked as chief of staff for one of those Democratic exceptions, former Gov. Hugh Gallen.
Gallen served two terms, beginning in 1978, which also happened to be the year Shaheen first ran for office. The Missouri-born mother of three, who moved to the state after working as a teacher in Mississippi, ran for state representative out of her hometown of Madbury. She finished in eighth place, out of eight candidates.
Shaheen stayed active behind the scenes, though, organizing and working on campaigns for other Democrats, including managing Gary Hart’s presidential primary bid.
Then in the 1990s, she relaunched her own political career. After serving three terms in the state Senate, Shaheen ran for governor in 1996.
She did so as a moderate, focusing on kitchen table issues like electricity rates, education, and jobs. On the trail, she combined the tactical skills of a political operative with a steady public demeanor -- and a willingness to do what it takes to win.
“Jeanne Shaheen is one of the nicest people I know, particularly in politics,” said Duncan. “Which is not to say that she can’t also be tough as nails.”
Her Republican opponent in that first race was 38-year old Ovide Lamontagne, then head of the state Board of Education, who ran as a staunch social conservative.
Lamontagne says, in the general election that year, he was out-spent and out-organized.
The Democratic Party, for decades an afterthought, had quickly matured its fundraising and communications efforts, and it did so under Shaheen’s guidance.
“It was very clear to me, this was a well-oiled machine that she gets credit for,” said Lamontagne. “She worked with the party apparatus to establish what is a very effective political operation in New Hampshire.”
Along with strengthening the party’s ground game, Shaheen in 1996 also stole what had been the GOP’s biggest weapon against Democrats: She campaigned on a pledge not to support a broad-based sales or income tax, something she was sure to remind lawmakers of in her first inaugural address.
“And if this legislature passes one, I will veto it,” she said in that speech.
During her three terms in the corner office, Shaheen clashed with the Republican legislature, but ultimately prevailed on a handful of signature issues, including a bill expanding kindergarten, and recognizing Dr. Martin Luther King Day as a state holiday.
She also bucked many liberals in her party by vetoing a death penalty repeal bill - and with her continued opposition to broadbased taxes.
Along with political fights, Shaheen, the state’s first elected female governor, was the target of sexist attacks. The Union Leader newspaper editorial board frequently referred to her as Betty Crocker.
“They had a particular image of ‘woman,’ and it didn’t include a woman who would be elected to the highest office in the state of New Hampshire,” said Kathy Sullivan, former New Hampshire Democratic Party chair and a longtime Shaheen ally.
In 2002, Shaheen faced then U.S. Rep. John E. Sununu for the U.S. Senate seat and lost. In 2008, she won the rematch, becoming the first female U.S. senator from New Hampshire. She did so, in part, by campaigning in a “New Hampshire style,” according to Steve Duprey, former chair of the state Republican Party.
“She’s very personable, she meets people, she’s approachable, runs a local key New Hampshire campaign,” said Duprey. “For somebody who didn’t grow up in New Hampshire, she became New Hampshire.”
Shaheen has also become something of a model for how other Democrats can compete and win. Her playbook involves trying to take the broadbased tax issue off the table; leaning into social issues, like abortion rights, that can attract the party’s base; and making strategic alliances across the political middle, including with law enforcement.
You can see pieces of the Shaheen playbook in almost every successful Democrat of the past 25 years, from John Lynch to Maggie Hassan to Chris Pappas. And in some ways, she’s followed a general rule that all politicians should strive for.
Dante Scala, a political scientist at UNH, said Shaheen doesn’t make a lot of unforced errors on the campaign trail, which “is more difficult than it sounds, perhaps.”
“To be someone who doesn’t get in her own way, someone who rarely makes mistakes. That can be a difficult person to defeat,” said Scala.
This November, Shaheen is facing Republican Bryant "Corky" Messner. At 73-years old, it could be her last campaign. Kathy Sullivan said Shaheen’s legacy, though, extends beyond electoral victories. Over the last 30 years, she’s continued to build up the Democratic Party’s ground game, turning it into a well-staffed and well-financed operation.
“That’s all due to Jeanne Shaheen,” said Sullivan. “I cannot underestimate how valuable and important she was to building the Democratic Party into the powerhouse that it is today. That was due to Jeanne Shaheen.”
In short, Shaheen helped do something that used to be something of a longshot: turn New Hampshire into a two-party state.