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Female Candidates Seek Rematches with Male Opponents in N.H., Court Women Voters

October 18, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
New Hampshire is poised to make history if three women running for national political office all win their bids. Anna Sale of WNYC Radio reports from the Granite State, where unemployment is relatively low and independence is highly valued, about how social issues are playing out in local elections and the presidential race.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, two more political stories: first, how Democrats are trying to convert women’s issues into votes in the battleground state of New Hampshire.

Special correspondent Anna Sale of WNYC Radio traveled to the GraniteState recently.

Her story is part of our new collaboration with public media partners across the country. We’re bringing you reports from areas that will likely dictate the outcome of the election in a series we call Battleground Dispatches.

ANNA SALE, WNYC Radio: In this election, women are a key voting bloc for both White House candidates. But in the battleground state of New Hampshire, closely contested races down the ballot are about much more than the female vote.

They’re also about the candidates. Both Democrats running for Congress here are women. So is the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Maggie Hassan, the only woman running for governor in the country. If all three win their races, New Hampshire will make history.

Elizabeth Ossoff studies political psychology at Saint Anselm College.

ELIZABETH OSSOFF, Saint Anselm College: It does seem striking, having all women, potentially, be the representatives to Washington, and also potentially sitting as the executive of the state.

But it’s not that surprising in New Hampshire. New Hampshire has sort of this track record, this history of being very comfortable with women in these positions.

ANNA SALE: Currently, New Hampshire’s two senators are both women, but from different parties. Victories for these other female candidates are anything but certain. So is the question of how women’s issues will impact these tight races.

MAGGIE HASSAN (D), New Hampshire gubernatorial candidate: Thank you very much.

ANNA SALE: Maggie Hassan is endorsed by Planned Parenthood and is running on her pledge to support the organization, which conservative lawmakers in the state have been pushing to defund.

MAGGIE HASSAN: Women’s health has become and is a part of this campaign because all across the state of New Hampshire, there are women who need to know whether they’re suddenly going to have to pay more for their health care.

If you defund Planned Parenthood, which my opponent supports, that means it’s going to be more expensive for cancer screenings, fertility treatments, birth control.

ANNA SALE: Hassan’s challenger is Republican Ovide Lamontagne. He says Democratic candidates are overstating the importance of women’s issues to distract voters from the economy.

OVIDE LAMONTAGNE, (R), New Hampshire gubernatorial candidate: In the course of over a year of campaigning across the state, attending house parties and Republican meetings and business meetings and meetings in between, across the spectrum, I can’t tell you that more than half a dozen times I have been asked questions about social issues.

That is not a front-burner issue at all. It’s really not on the radar screen of any voter, that at least I have encountered in the course of a better — more than a year of campaigning.

The issues have only come up now in the general election.

ANNA SALE: Both President Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney, a part-time resident of New Hampshire, have made the GraniteState a frequent stop on the campaign trail. They’re both courting female voters here and across the country.

NARRATOR: Well, when it comes to protecting your access to birth control and the basic women’s health care services Planned Parenthood provides, one thing we must remember, is this:

MITT ROMNEY (R): I will cut off funding to Planned Parenthood.

NARRATOR: He’ll cut it off.

NARRATOR: Dear daughter, welcome to America. Your share of Obama’s debt is over $50,000, and it grows every day. Obama’s policies are making it harder on women.

ANNA SALE: But how women’s issues will play out in this largely independent, libertarian-leaning state is anyone’s guess.

The same is true for economic issues; New Hampshire’s unemployment rate is just 5.7 percent, far lower than the national average.

New Hampshire’s independent streak has led to unpredictable voting patterns. Mr. Obama won here four years ago.

But two years later, the Tea Party wave gave Republicans big gains. They won back the two congressional seats they lost in 2006, and took over the state legislature. Even the voters here have a hard time pinning down the political mood.

MICHAEL LYNCH, New Hampshire: There’s a lot of independents in New Hampshire. People tend to make up their minds you know, at the last — not necessarily the last minute, the couple days. They expect to see their candidates and get to know them.

SARA D’AGASTINO, New Hampshire: There’s a lot of things that both parties have that I like. I think Democrats have something on a social end, but I think there are some Republican ideals that I can identify with, too. So it’s hard. Every year, I sit there and say, which candidate is speaking to me more?

ANNA SALE: Dante Scala is a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. He says Republicans do best in New Hampshire when they sidestep social issues.

DANTE SCALA, University of New Hampshire: Fiscal issues tend to rally the Republican base, but social issues, abortion, gay marriage, when they’re on the front burner, that tends to fracture the Republican base. Because Republicans in New Hampshire are at best ambivalent about issues like abortion and gay marriage, unlike Republicans elsewhere.

ANNA SALE: Republican Congressman Charles Bass is running against Democrat Ann McLane Kuster. The race is a rematch; in 2010, Bass narrowly beat Kuster to reclaim the 2nd District seat he’d lost in 2006.

Like Romney, Bass is running mainly on his prescription for the economy. But he’s also stressing his bipartisan credentials on social issues.

REP. CHARLES BASS, R-N.H.: The fact is, is that I — I clear my own path in the political world. I have supported a strong reauthorization of the Violence Against Women’s Act, the Senate version, as it’s known. I supported funding for Title X for women’s health.

I have supported a woman’s right to choose;. I support Roe v. Wade. And these are all issues that the Democrats have tried to tie on the Republicans, but they just don’t work with me.

ANNA SALE: Kuster is banking on what she calls a backlash from voters against the Tea Party wave that swept New Hampshire in 2010.

ANN MCLANE KUSTER (D), New Hampshire congressional candidate: The Democrats will do very, very swell up and down the ticket.

I think what happened was that there was some frustration. People thought the Tea Party was going to make promises that they could fulfill, and they absolutely have not.

So, Congressman Bass embraced the Tea Party, went to Washington and spent two years voting with them. And now the voters realize that that’s a nightmare. It’s a disaster.

ANNA SALE: In the state’s 1st Congressional District, the race is another rematch, this one between Democrat Carol Shea-Porter and Republican Frank Guinta, who unseated her in 2010. Now she’s running on opposition to the Tea Party’s record in New Hampshire.

CAROL SHEA-PORTER (D), former U.S. congresswoman: They forgot they were there to create jobs and they didn’t pass a comprehensive jobs bill and they turned towards social engineering with trying to block contraception and all those other issues that really shocked New Hampshire.

ANNA SALE: But Congressman Guinta is betting on frustration with wasteful spending, the same issue he rode to victory in 2010, and one that often excites voters in New Hampshire, which boasts no sales tax.

REP. FRANK GUINTA, R-N.H.: They did have the stimulus, $800 billion, and then it turns out that it wasn’t nearly as effective as they hoped it was going to be. We continue to see the borrowing. Those things really frustrated America, and as a result you saw this 87 freshman class get elected.

So, I think that the other side feels they have no alternative but to try to brand the entire Republican Party as Tea Party, and that just doesn’t hold water.

ANNA SALE: A new SuffolkUniversity poll out this week shows the presidential contest here is too close to call, but Mr. Obama does hold a slight edge over Romney among female voters.

FRANK GUINTA: In a presidential year, there’s always some spillover into the down-ballot races.

Now, it really depends on what’s going on politically in the political environment. This cycle, you are definitely seeing I think more energy of late, I think primarily because of the debate performances, for Mitt Romney.

And that does affect down-ballot to a certain extent. And it will affect turnout a certain extent.  

But the reality is, this is New Hampshire. It’s a battleground. It’s the first-in-the-nation primary.

ANNA SALE: In a close election, this state’s four electoral votes could determine who wins the White House, but it remains unclear if an Obama victory here would translate to a historic sweep for the Democratic women sharing the ballot.