The New Founding Mothers of New Hampshire

It only took two centuries: five women who made political history by winning all of their state’s top slots reveal the intimate, often surprising details of their varying paths to power

by Alexandra Starr
new hampshire state leadership image
From left to right: Senator Kelly Ayotte, Representative Carol Shea-Porter, Governor Maggie Hassan, Representative Annie McLane Kuster, Senator Jeanne Shaheen
Photograph: Illustration by Daniel Adel

Support also came in the form of her mother’s longtime friend and colleague, U.S. senator Jeanne Shaheen. “She appeared at events, giving [me] legitimacy along the way,” says Kuster. “That’s an important piece for all candidates but particularly women -candidates—to have validators.”

The only woman in the U.S. to have served as both senator and governor, Shaheen has experience in electoral politics that dates back to 1976, when she and her husband, Billy, were organizers in Jimmy Carter’s New Hampshire presidential primary bid.

Shaheen ran two statewide campaigns before she became the candidate herself in 1990. “I had a good network, and I saw a great opportunity in my district, where I thought the state senator was too conservative,” says Shaheen, 66. She remembers McLane, whom she calls “a big mentor,” introducing her to lawmakers and imparting advice she’d received about the best colors to wear for public appearances.

Susan McLane died five years before her daughter became a candidate; nonetheless, she ended up boosting Kuster’s first electoral foray. When Kuster was clearing out her parents’ house, she came across an immense 3-by-5-inch holiday-card file her mother had kept and updated for more than two decades. Annotated to mark newborn children, divorces and address changes, the cards contained the names of hundreds of supporters. Kuster sent off fund-raising appeals to everyone in the box who was still alive, and the checks started pouring in. “We called it fund raising from heaven,” she says.

Despite that apparently divine intervention, Kuster lost the race. Hassan lost her first race, too, as well as a state senate re-election campaign in 2010. Shaheen lost her first U.S. Senate bid, and Shea-Porter was ousted from her congressional seat in 2010 (she reclaimed it two years later). “Failure is part of this process,” Hassan says. She cites losing her state senate seat as an element in her successful 2012 run for governor, in part because it sensitized her to conservative strands in the New Hampshire electorate. Kuster pored over the returns from her failed 2010 bid, then two years later focused her efforts on the southern part of the state, where her support had lagged. She also took pride in how close her defeat had been to victory.

“I won the primary with 72 percent of the vote. That was so, ‘Wow, this is working,’ ”she says. Seven weeks later, in the general election, Kuster lost by 3,000 votes—the same margin as in her mother’s failed congressional bid. Yet Kuster didn’t see her loss as a rebuke. She’d come very close to ousting a man who had served in Congress for a dozen years—an accomplishment that showed a rematch was winnable.

Statistically, women are less likely than men to run again after losing a political race. Kuster points out that this suppresses their numbers in public office. “If you talk to people in Congress, most of them have lost elections,” she says. “The president lost a [congressional] election. You’ve got to not be set back by that but just consider that this is difficult to do and you need to hang in there.”

“Sometimes I liken campaigning to walking on lily pads, when you’re trying not to fall in the water,” she says. “Focus on the positive. Part of the work in politics is becoming known. When you come up short, you can’t conclude they don’t want you. You have to frame it as they don’t know you yet.”

Women's new path to power
While women of Hassan’s generation often came to politics after years of volunteering, today’s female candidates—especially the younger ones—are skipping that route in favor of the path men usually take: working for powerful political figures or nabbing prosecutor jobs in which they can put notorious criminals and wayward politicians behind bars. When Ayotte arrived for a job interview with newly elected New Hampshire governor Craig Benson in the fall of 2002, she’d achieved a level of national renown unusual for a 34-year-old. As chief of the homicide unit at the state attorney general’s office, she presided over a number of high-profile cases.

First published in the December 2013/January 2014 issue

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