A TV AD from "Citizens for a Strong New Hampshire'' against U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen for her support for the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) got state and national attention last week.
The news was that it was the first ad related to the 2014 U.S. Senate election. And it was the first ad critical of Shaheen aired in New Hampshire since her 2008 win.
No one has laid much of a glove on her since, or even tried. It's too early to say if the new ad will begin to soften her up for next year's campaign, but that's clearly the goal.
It certainly caught the attention of the Shaheen camp and state Democrats. Her campaign launched a fund-raising email to counter the ad by this "secretive right-wing group."
The state party asked who was funding the ad, knowing full well that a 501(c)(4) advocacy group, which Citizens is, need not disclose its donors.
The top consultant for the group is Mike Biundo of Manchester, former national campaign manager for Rick Santorum's presidential campaign. That relationship and Santorum's Twitter post about the ad sparked speculation that he, or his donors, funded the $110,000, two-week buy.
Biundo wasn't saying. He said Democrat speculation is "trying to distract from the salient point we're making," that the ACA is going to hurt New Hampshire families.
Biundo was once a top aide to then-Manchester Mayor Frank Guinta. But there is no indication that the ad was a stalking horse for a Senate campaign by former U.S. Rep. Guinta.
Biundo said this ad (more are planned) is to fill a vacuum because no one else has been taking on Shaheen.
In his opinion, the 2014 election will be "a huge referendum on 'Obamacare,'" which is beginning to take effect over the coming months.
That could be a strong issue for Republicans.
In the most recent UNH Survey Center poll, released in mid-April, support for Affordable Health Care act declined to 34 percent from 41 percent in February, while opposition increased to 49 percent.
At the same time, however, Shaheen remains extremely popular. The same UNH poll (completed for WMUR television) showed her with a 59 percent approval rating, with only 23 percent unfavorable.
Couple that with Shaheen's fund-raising prowess and her opponents have a steep climb. But it's early.
NHDP spokesman Harrell Kirstein said Biundo's was a phony attack.
"Only the Republicans want to go back and re-fight the health care battle. Everybody else knows health care reform is expanding coverage and reducing costs here and across the country," Kirstein said.
The group's ad and the attention it received from state and national political media, coupled with debates at the State House on Medicaid expansion and aligning small market insurance rules with the ACA, have boosted the overall issue's profile.
Expect the ramp-up to continue.
Meanwhile, Republican former state Sen. Jim Rubens said over the weekend that he continues to explore a run for the seat.
He said that based on telephone calls he's made for the past two weeks, "there is an intense amount of interest by active Republicans about winning this election. And there is no violent rejection of the approach that I'm taking to fiscal matters," which is a revenue neutral exchange of a carbon tax for decreases in individual and corporate taxes.
"In fact there is universal agreement about my focus on the debt, deficit, entitlement reform and health care costs," Rubens said.
SMALL VICTORY, BIG SPIN. In an off-year, even small elections become big ones.
The political crowd is still talking about the mild upset pulled off by the GOP in the special New Hampshire House election in Claremont's Ward 2 last Tuesday. Former GOP Rep. Joe Osgood beat Democratic former Rep. Larry Converse, 322-246 in a ward that in the November 2012 election had 2,554 names on the checklist — 899 undeclared, 873 Democrats and 782 Republicans.
The turnout was 22 percent, not bad for a special election in June.
The state GOP heralded it as a major victory and while candidate Osgood received the bulk of the credit, points were also awarded to party political director David Chesley and organizer Tyler Drummond, who were able to get out the GOP vote with the help of volunteers from Sullivan County, nearby Vermont, and right-to-work forces.
Both sides tried to use the result to raise money.
"Last night Republicans took the first step in the fight to take back New Hampshire with a convincing House special election victory," wrote NHGOP chair Jennifer Horn.
New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley took a different, and an unusual approach.
"We were outspent," he acknowledged in an email to supporters, which Republicans were only too happy to repeat throughout the week.
"Despite all our hard work, Republicans poured more money into this district and won. We cannot let this happen again," Buckley wrote in an email asking for donations.
In an email to the Status, he wrote, "A relative high point for the NHGOP is any 24-hour period without a self-inflicted implosion."
What it means for the big picture, for 2014, remains to be seen. But credit Sullivan County Republican Chair Spec Bowers with straight talk.
He told the Valley News, "Special elections never have real implications. Republicans will say it means things are turning around and Democrats will say it is because Osgood is so well-known, but from what I have heard, an election like this is about turnout. They don't campaign on the issues.
"I'd like to think it is a good sign but I can't. I know better," Bowers said.
THE CHRISTIE DECISION. Will last week's move by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to shun some Republicans' wishes on the filling of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg's seat have repercussions here if he runs for President?
The governor chose to fill the seat only for a few months and then hold a special election in October, just a few weeks before he stands for reelection himself.
He declined to appoint someone, presumably a Republican, to serve the remainder of Lautenberg's term through 2014 and thus strengthen the Senate for the GOP.
Some former Mitt Romney Republicans in New Hampshire are still smarting over Christie's hug of President Barack Obama at the Jersey Shore a few weeks before the general election in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
Of Christie's Senate move, a state Romney backer said, "It's annoying. New Hampshire will be very important to him if he runs (for President), but he just keeps annoying people."
But strategist Tom Rath saw no New Hampshire fallout for Christie.
"It's wide open and anyone who thinks they know now what it's going to look like a year and a half from now is wrong," Rath told Status. "The perception of him will change when he wins a very substantial reelection victory as governor in a very difficult state for Republicans."
Several people in Christie's inner circle have worked for candidates in New Hampshire in past primary election cycles, by the way.Maria Comella, his communication director, was Rudy Giuliani's 2008 deputy communications director. She was communications director for the New Hampshire Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign.Mike Duhaime, a top strategist for Christie's campaign, managed Giuliani's campaign in 2008 and in 2004 was eastern field director for Bush-Cheney, which had him here often.
And Bill Stepien, a Christie deputy chief of staff, was New Hampshire political director for Bush-Cheney in 2004 and then was John McCain's national field director in 2008.
John DiStaso is senior political reporter of the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jdistaso.