Sununu Shows How to Fight

If he can’t hold his Senate seat, it’s hard to imagine what GOP candidate can.

It’s official: Former Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen is poised to beat both George W. Bush and A. Financial Crisis for New Hampshire’s Senate seat.

John Sununu? Who he?

If you want to know why Republican candidates are struggling — at risk of ceding Democrats unfettered control in Washington — consider the Granite State. It highlights the new Democratic strategy of turning every race into a referendum on the current administration. Yet it’s also proving that GOP reformers like Mr. Sununu are best positioned to fight back.

[Potomac Watch] Terry Shoffner

Only a few weeks ago, Mr. Sununu, one of the Senate GOP’s bright minds, was taking control over his re-election effort against Mrs. Shaheen. He was successfully pointing out her miserable New Hampshire tax record, her opposition to more energy development, and her failure to reform New Hampshire school funding.

Then came the financial crisis, and Mrs. Shaheen found her opening to nationalize the race. Her only talking points these days are financial distress, the president, and Mr. Sununu’s supposed connection to both. Mr. Bush and Mr. Sununu caused this economic crisis. Mr. Bush and Mr. Sununu have failed to fix this economic crisis. She, and Barack Obama, will.

It’s the same everywhere. As Republican candidates attempt to define their opponents — to talk about the tax, spend and reform issues that will presumably one day again matter to voters — they are instead being defined by events beyond their control. Barack Obama and Hank Paulson have kept Washington the only news.

That Mrs. Shaheen would try this on Mr. Sununu, of all people, is testament to just how powerful Democrats believe that new strategy to be. The 44-year-old Republican was elected in 2002 as a reformer, and what did he choose as his object of reform? Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which were already taking on the dangerous risk that has since helped swamp the credit markets.

Only seven months into his term, Mr. Sununu introduced legislation to give a new federal regulator power to oversee Fan and Fred’s holdings, and to ratchet up their capital requirements. Far from creating the economic mess, Mr. Sununu in 2003 (and in 2005) was trying to stop it. Democrats didn’t listen until this summer, when they finally included Mr. Sununu’s reforms in their Fannie/Freddie rescue legislation. That was five years too late.

This reform record is turning out to be Mr. Sununu’s most potent counterweapon in this new field of battle. In debates and ads, he’s been reminding New Hampshire voters that he was on the right side of housing-disaster history. And he’s been pointing out the many areas in which he’s picked fights with his own party, including spending and earmarks. At a time when so many voters sense confusion in Washington, he’s pitching his actions as clear-eyed and consistent leadership.

If anything, his vote on the recent financial rescue is buttressing that theme. Three weeks ago, the conventional Washington wisdom was that the only “safe” vote on the $700 billion “bailout” package was “no.” In a state with the motto “live free or die,” that position might be all the more attractive. Mrs. Shaheen certainly thought so, and voiced her opposition to the bill.

Mr. Sununu voted yes. And as the public’s awareness of just how grave this crisis is has started to catch up with reality, that position has looked more astute. Compare this to North Carolina’s Elizabeth Dole or Mississippi’s Roger Wicker, two senators who both voted no, are getting hammered for inaction, and who both are now among the GOP’s greatest worries. Mr. Sununu’s “clear message, which he’s contrasted with hers, has been ‘I don’t duck the issues,'” says Tom Rath, the former state attorney general.

The Republican has also doggedly continued to focus on Mrs. Shaheen and her record, highlighting her great love of taxes as governor, and contrasting that with his own tax-cut votes — in particular those that have helped New Hampshire’s many small businesses. Should the focus come back in the next few weeks to tax and spend issues, he’ll be prepared.

And so long as this race has gone national, Mr. Sununu is hoping to benefit. John McCain may have slipped in the polls, but he remains a motivating force for many New Hampshire independents, a voting bloc Mr. Sununu is counting on for help. Sarah Palin commanded Obama-sized crowds in the state this week; the senator was at her side.

Mr. Sununu is still running single-digits behind Mrs. Shaheen in the polls, though GOP strategists say he has tightened the numbers this past week. The Republican is known for coming from behind. Pulling out a win in this brutal electoral environment may be a long shot. But if Mr. Sununu — with his record of reform and pro-growth policies — can’t hold his seat, it’s hard to imagine what GOP Senate candidate can.

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