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Shea-Porter's decision to not run again sends heads spinning

New Hampshire Union Leader

October 08. 2017 1:08AM
U.S. Rep. Carol Shea Porter, D-N.H., has announced that she will not seek re-election. Now there's a scramble to elect a successor. (David Lane/Union Leader file photo)

MANCHESTER - The unexpected decision of four-term, Democratic Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter to voluntarily exit the stage in 2018 after six straight runs for the First Congressional District seat will create the ultimate toss-up in both political parties, according to campaign operatives and observers alike.

And experienced campaigners predict there will be more surprises when Republican and Democratic entrants jump into this nationally-targeted race.

"I'm expecting it, but it's one thing to talk about running for Congress, quite another to actually go ahead and do it," said Michael Biundo, campaign consultant for GOP hopeful Eddie Edwards of Dover and a prime architect of Manchester Republican Frank Guinta's first unseating of Shea-Porter in 2010.

"As far as I'm concerned, the more who get into this race the merrier."

The New Hampshire Union Leader has confirmed one fresh Democratic face could be Maura Sullivan of Portsmouth, a former Marine and Iraq War veteran who served as assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs in the Obama administrations. Informed sources said Sullivan will soon form an exploratory committee as an initial step towards making a run.

The quick, incorrect assumption is the departure of Shea-Porter automatically spells bad news for Democrats - the 64-year-old Rochester social worker was the first Democrat to win the First District in 30 years.

New Hampshire Republican leaders have always considered this eastern half of the state to be their territory and only three Democrats have held it since World War II.

"She drove the Republicans crazy because they didn't understand how someone who was just a grass-roots activist could get elected to what they thought was their seat," said former Democratic Party Chairman Kathy Sullivan.

"Careful what you wish for Republicans. We knew Carol was going to be in their sights next year. Now where do they point their weapons and what's their ammunition?"

Greg Moore, state director of the fiscally-conservative Americans for Prosperity, has no dog in this fight, having helped manage John Stephen's two unsuccessful campaigns in this district. Citing pressing demands of his business and his family, Stephen took himself out of consideration last week.

"I don't think there was a playbook for how a Carol Shea-Porter would leave the Congress. She had a very easy track record for anyone to go after," Moore said. "Now you've got to start over, but politically it was and still is one of the best Republican pick-up opportunities in the country."

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Communications Director Meredith Kelly acted confident in the wake of Shea-Porter's announcement.

"Congresswoman Shea-Porter is a dedicated public servant and we are grateful for her many years of service to the people of New Hampshire. There is no doubt that Democrats will hold this seat, and we look forward to competing against whomever Steve Bannon nominates." Bannon is the former political adviser to President Donald Trump.

On Friday night, Shea-Porter was urging her supporters not to look at this as retirement but rather a "pause," holding out that she might try and a return to elected office in the future.

Shea-Porter's office did not respond to an interview request.

There's plenty of evidence Shea-Porter astutely chose this as the best time to go out on top.

In 2006, she wisely seized on the anti-Iraq War and President George W. Bush fatigue to first take office.

In four, straight elections since 2008, Shea-Porter has failed to get 50 percent of the vote.

She's lost the last two, mid-term elections to Guinta in 2010 and 2014 only to avenge them both in the next presidential election cycle.

Last November, the 44 percent she got and the near 10 percent for unknown, independent Shawn O'Connor of Bedford were sure signs many had tired of the four showdowns between Shea-Porter and Guinta, all of them marked by bitterness and tired themes.

Sullivan said Shea-Porter overcoming that last defeat to Guinta "was a crowning achievement and maybe the perfect way for her to end things. She accomplished something important to her personal integrity."

Finally, Shea-Porter's subpar performance as a fundraising incumbent often forced party leaders to step in and prevent her from being outgunned. It's likely the choice of Democratic primary voters to replace her as nominee next September will be an upgrade in that department.

In late 2015, national Democratic Party leaders were convinced Shea-Porter's time had passed and they were urging Executive Councilor Chris Pappas of Manchester to get into the race to try and force her out.

Understanding Shea-Porter's desire for political redemption, Pappas stepped aside and helped clear the field for her.

"Chris earned himself a lot of goodwill with how he conducted himself," recalled Democratic National Committeewoman Joanne Dowdell.

If Pappas can break away from his Puritan Backroom family business to run this time, he'd be a serious contender, as would others including ex-Portsmouth City Councilor Stefany Shaheen and Manchester State Sen. Donna Soucy.

But Moore said in his zeal to hold onto the seat, Democratic Party Chairman Raymond Buckley must resist the temptation to try and anoint someone.

Party leaders badly misfired in 2006 when they embraced House Democratic Leader Jim Craig of Manchester. Shea-Porter crashed that party by routing Craig in the primary before going on to retire GOP Congressman Jeb Bradley in the general election.

"The (Sen. Bernie) Sanders wing of the party, rightly so, has to be respected and they are feeling very empowered," Moore said.

Former AFL-CIO President and Manchester State Rep. Mark MacKenzie could be one who tries to win over both camps, said Kurt Ehrenberg, former AFL-CIO communications director under MacKenzie and a chief spokesman for the Vermont independent's White House bid in 2016.

"Mark is still on Bernie's steering committee but he also has many friends and admirers among the party establishment," Ehrenberg said.

Meanwhile, Republicans do and should feel bullish about winning the traditionally GOP seat and national leaders were inquiring Friday who else would now enter this race beyond those already in, Bedford State Sen. Andy Sanborn and Edwards, the Navy veteran and former state liquor law enforcement chief.

"New Hampshire has a fantastic opportunity to replace her with a Republican representative who will work for the people of New Hampshire's First Congressional District," summed up GOP State Chairwoman Jeanie Forrester.

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