Will This New Hampshire District Signal a Wave?

One district. Two candidates. Three elections.

DERRY, N.H.—On a fall Saturday in September, former GOP Rep. Frank Guinta walks through the crowd at a town fair in his district and gets an offer for a free eye exam from a local ophthalmologist's office. A veteran tells him he's welcome to use the VFW hall any time for a town-hall meeting. He gets a photo request—"Hey congressman, can we take a selfie with you?"—from a group of teenage boys.

Guinta knows people here, and people know him, too. That's because this fall isn't the former Manchester mayor's first time running in this district against Democrat Carol Shea-Porter—it isn't even his second time.

Guinta and now-Rep. Shea-Porter are competing in a rare three-peat matchup after facing off in both 2010 and 2012. Guinta kicked Shea-Porter out of office the first time they fought for the seat; Shea-Porter ousted Guinta the next. It's an interesting dynamic in a race that tops Republicans' list of House pickup opportunities—and also speaks to the 1st District's status as perhaps the most wave-susceptible in the country.

"We know each other, we've done this before with one another in the mix, so I think it'll bring a little bit of actual civility when I think actual civility is desperately needed," Guinta told National Journal.

But civil it is not. Shea-Porter's opening general-election gambit was a negative ad just two days after Guinta won the GOP primary, saying Guinta is "funded by the billionaire Koch brothers and sided with big oil and the wealthiest every time." Local news channel WMUR said "tension and animosity" were "high" at the pair's first debate and that neither of the candidates "really wanted to look at each other."

In a statement to National Journal, Shea-Porter pointed to Guinta's positions on abortion and climate change and said, "Frank Guinta is flying the Tea Party flag for the third time and is too extreme for our state."

Guinta, who hasn't run a negative ad against Shea-Porter yet though outside GOP groups have run them on his behalf, dismisses the attacks. "That's old hat," he said of Shea-Porter's approach. "I understand that—but when the two of us are together I think we can look at each other and say, 'Okay.' "

Perhaps that calm comes from polling that gives Guinta reason to hope he'll be successful at ousting Shea-Porter yet again: An August survey from the University of New Hampshire found Guinta leading by 4 points, 45 percent to 41 percent, while a late September New England College poll found them tied.

But that's not so much because they like him. As University of New Hampshire pollster Andy Smith puts it, there are still some voters who say they don't have an opinion about the candidates—and many of those who do aren't exactly thrilled about them. In UNH's last Granite State Poll, Shea-Porter's favorability ratings stood at 42 percent favorable, 30 percent unfavorable. Guinta was almost even, with 30 percent favorable and 29 percent unfavorable.

"Democrats don't like Shea-Porter. Republicans don't like Guinta," Smith said. "It's going to be kind of a meat grinder of an election. Two people who aren't really popular, aren't really well-liked "¦ it's going to be ugly."

Perhaps that's why this district is so prone to tossing its elected officials. In 2006, 2010, and 2012, incumbent members lost in accordance with the national wave of the time: Shea-Porter first ran for the seat in 2006, riding that year's Democratic wave into victory over incumbent Republican Rep. Jeb Bradley. Guinta challenged her in 2010, when the GOP wave crested and ushered him and fellow state Republicans Charlie Bass and Kelly Ayotte into office. Then in 2012, Shea-Porter challenged Guinta and took the seat back as President Obama won another term on the national level.

"I doubt that there's another district that has this kind of dynamic where the candidates know each other so well and the voters know the candidates so well," said Kathy Sullivan, a former New Hampshire Democratic Party chairwoman and current Democratic National Committee member.

It's not just the 1st District, either. New Hampshire as a whole is often seen as an early-warning system for a national wave. It's known for being sensitive to the national environment, particularly opinions toward the president. And with Obama taking hits for his handling of foreign policy among other things, Republicans expect an anti-Washington lift for not only Guinta but GOP Senate nominee Scott Brown and the entire Republican ticket here too. In other words, if Guinta does well, it's likely his whole party will too.

Guinta thinks so, too. "2012 was I don't think so much about Carol Shea-Porter as it was about President Obama and his reelection," he said. "Now you look a year and a half later, his numbers are down, and that's hurting Democrat incumbents"¦. We have had waves in New Hampshire in '06, '08, 2010, and 2012, and it sort of feels like 2014 may be that as well."

Thanks to that environment, national Republicans have always placed this race high on their 2014 target list. The National Republican Congressional Committee's first TV ad of the cycle went after Shea-Porter for her lack of "New Hampshire values." At the time, Shea-Porter had only been back in Congress for a month.

"It's Guinta's turn," said John Sununu, the former Republican governor. "It's an interesting district, it's a tough district "¦ but I think people gave Carol Shea-Porter another chance [in 2012] and decided, 'Oh my gosh, she's as bad as we thought the first time.' "

And that is part of Guinta's argument: Shea-Porter has changed and she's out of step with the district's moderate voters. Guinta talks frequently about Shea-Porter's low profile on the campaign trail, saying she got her political start at town-hall meetings but has been avoiding them since she was reelected in 2012.

Shea-Porter spokeswoman Marjorie Connolly dismissed charges that her boss is an absentee congresswoman as untrue and listed 10 public town hall events since Shea-Porter took office in 2013. "It's definitely been a coordinated push from the state GOP for all the Democratic incumbents," Connolly added, including Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.

On her behalf, Democrats are trying to cast Guinta as a denizen of the tea party, beholden to the Koch brothers and too extreme for the district. "Frank has sort of shifted from being someone who, in the legislature, was not 100 percent anti-choice, and [his predecessor Jeb] Bradley was not seen as what we would call today a tea-party congressman," Sullivan said. "But now Guinta has done the conversion."