Former Sen. Scott Brown is down double digits in the polls, he's likely to be outspent by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, and he's gotten headlines lately for all the wrong reasons — rebutting allegations that he hid from a reporter in a bathroom to avoid tough questioning.
But that hasn't changed New Hampshire Republicans' preternatural confidence about Brown's chances. They still view him as the world-beater who won a Senate race in deep-blue Massachusetts, and insist that the combination of a still-upcoming GOP primary and the state's tendency for late-breaking shifts in the polls will help narrow the race this fall.
"Everybody would feel more comfortable if Brown was beating her in the polls or within the margin of error," said Republican strategist Jamie Burnett, who ran former Sen. John Sununu's 2002 and 2008 campaigns. "But I guess I'm not overly concerned right now when I see him 8 points down."
Brown, the ex-senator from Massachusetts, entered the race in early April as part of a trio of GOP candidates — including Rep. Cory Gardner in Colorado and former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie in Virginia — who were touted as proof of the expanding Senate map for Republicans.
A series of polls found him coming close to Shaheen that month: a Dartmouth poll put him down just 3 points, and one from WMUR/UNH earlier that month found him trailing by 6 points.
Those numbers shifted this summer, when public polling has shown Brown trailing by anywhere between 8 and 12 points. The most recent poll, from NBC News/Marist, had Brown behind Shaheen 50 percent to 42 percent.
Brown also trails in the money race: He has $1.5 million on hand, compared with Shaheen's $5.1 million, and Shaheen outraised him in the second quarter. Still, his haul — from his first quarter in the race — was $2.34 million, higher than most GOP challengers across the map.
But the headlines in recent weeks haven't been helpful — and Democrats have gleefully seized on bad press for Brown as proof he's running a bad campaign. Brown avoided a British reporter's question on the Hobby Lobby decision by getting up to go to the bathroom, giving the impression that he wasn't well versed on a significant campaign issue. In response, Brown's campaign spokesman noted that it doesn't do interviews with foreign press, and said Brown discussed Hobby Lobby with a handful of local editorial boards that same week.
The race is certainly an uphill climb for Brown, which even Granite State Republicans acknowledge. Unseating an incumbent is never easy, particularly one who remains fairly popular.
"I don't think there's any question that Jeanne Shaheen is ahead and continues to be favored for reelection," said Fergus Cullen, a New Hampshire consultant who previously chaired the state Republican Party. "That being said "¦ I continue to think that the race is likely to be, at a minimum, competitive."
The GOP argument for Brown is simple. First, he'll get a bump after the state's Sept. 9 primary, when he consolidates his GOP support; and, second, voters won't really tune in until after Labor Day anyway.
"Scott Brown's path to victory is simple: Consolidate the Republican base and split the independent vote," campaign manager Colin Reed wrote in a state-of-the-race memo earlier this month. "In a very real sense, the race against Jeanne Shaheen doesn't begin until after the primary when the process of unifying the party can begin."
Brown faces former U.S. Sen. Bob Smith and former state Sen. Jim Rubens in the primary; he's expected to win easily, but the contest is preventing him from focusing full-time on Shaheen.
"I do think Brown is hampered a little bit in that he has a primary he cannot ignore," Cullen said. "He's going to win it and win it convincingly, but I think it's interfering with his ability to run a general-election-focused campaign."
University of New Hampshire pollster Andy Smith said the electorate is still incredibly fluid. In the most recent Granite State Poll he conducted, just 17 percent of those surveyed said they had definitely decided on a candidate.
"Nobody's paying attention — it's summertime," he said. "It's not that [voters] are not seeing this or that it's not going on, they're just not focused on it."
Smith also noted that early polls in the race tend to overestimate actual turnout for the fall, which likely means Shaheen's numbers are slightly higher than they should be.
Still, Brown has to find a way to effectively make the case for ousting Shaheen, a former governor who's still popular in the state. Despite the outside ads that have already been hammering the senator, her favorability ratings haven't taken a major hit. In the NBC News/Marist poll, 52 percent said they view her favorably, compared with 39 percent who viewed her negatively.
"She's very well-known here, she's very well respected "¦ she was a very good governor, so people trust her," said Kathy Sullivan, a former chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. "As a result of that, [Shaheen] has built up a really good reservoir of goodwill. So why change?"
Brown's favorability in that poll, on the other hand, was equally divided: 40 percent view him favorably, compared with 39 percent who view him unfavorably.
Democrats aren't acting as if Shaheen has a significant edge. National Democratic groups, such as the Senate Majority PAC and the League of Conservation Voters, are spending money here instead of spending it in other battlegrounds. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has already reserved $1 million in Manchester, N.H., airtime for the fall.
And the Koch-backed Freedom Partners group is also betting that the race will be competitive this fall: It has reserved $1.8 million in airtime on 20 Boston cable stations, according to The Washington Post, beginning after the primary.
"Brown is running a first-class campaign, getting all the money [he needs], the messaging is good," said Jim Merrill, a GOP consultant who ran Mitt Romney's 2012 operations in the state. "Around mid-September, you're going to see this thing get awful tight awful quick."
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