New Hampshire, politically, is a strange state to get a handle on as the winds are continuously shifting there. The best example is their 2nd Congressional district which has switched hands over the past few political cycles between Republican and Democratic and the same two people- Carol Shea-Porter and Frank Guinta. In 2010, with the backing of some key Tea Party type leaders, Kelly Ayotte won the Senate seat formerly held by Judd Gregg. He, you may remember, started as a Republican and ended up something else. The vote in 2010 was not even close as she defeated Democrat Paul Hodes with 60% of the vote.
How times have changed over the past six years. Ayotte’s standing in the conservative community has been seriously downgraded. Although she will likely win the GOP primary, she faces some competition from her right. Ex-state senator Jim Rubens is her main challenger, although he has not won anything since 1996. He lost the GOP primary in 2014 against Scott Brown to see who would take on Jean Shaheen. Realistically, his chances are slim against an incumbent.
But, there are other signs out there that Ayotte has fallen out of favor with conservatives. Americans for Prosperity has stated that they will not support the reelection efforts of Ayotte because she has strayed too far from conservative principles they support. They cite her support for the Import-Export Bank and onerous environmental regulations. For her part, Ayotte has suggested a ban on outside spending in the race- something she knows she cannot control and knowing full well that conservative outside groups are running from her.
In the end, Ayotte is obviously the Republican Party’s best chance to retain this seat in the Senate, but she will face tougher competition this time out in the form of outgoing Governor Maggie Hassan.
Hassan entered politics in 1999 when her mentor, former Governor and current Senator Jeanne Shaheen appointed her to an education commission. She won two terms in the state assembly before jumping to the state senate and becoming majority leader, a job she parlayed into winning the gubernatorial race in 2012.
The dynamics of this race are strange. Hassan is portraying Ayotte as too close to the far right wing of the Republican Party citing Ayotte’s votes to defund Planned Parenthood, repeal Obamacare and oppose new gun control measures. Meanwhile, the actual more right wing elements of the GOP are not happy with Ayotte for not being conservative enough. So which is it? Hassan, at a ceremony in Hanover, claimed that Ayotte’s voting record “was about 90% with the Koch brothers” even though the Koch-related AFP has said they will not assist Ayotte this cycle. So which is it?
As best as one can discern, Ayotte seems to be socially conservative and fiscally somewhat moderate, if not liberal at times. It is a bizarre politics that seems to mirror those of the state at large- bizarre. Enter Donald Trump as the probable GOP nominee for President. Trump won the New Hampshire primary in rather convincing style against second place finisher, John Kasich. That victory helped winnow the field somewhat. As it became more apparent that Trump was on a pathway to victory, the inevitable questions about whether Ayotte would support or endorse the polarizing Trump began.
Ayotte responded at the time that she was focused on other issues and the challenge from Hassan. She has stated that it is unlikely she will be at the Cleveland convention preferring to campaign in New Hampshire instead. She has further said she understands the attacks from the Left and the Right simultaneously stating that is indicative when being an “independent voice for the people of New Hampshire.”
Ayotte certainly has the advantage of incumbency, but that could be a double-edged sword in a toxic political atmosphere where even a one-term Senator from tiny New Hampshire can be tied to the status quo, or the “Washington cartel.” One wedge issue being played by the Democrats is the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. Ayotte has been rather steadfast in her belief that the next President should be given that choice. Hassan has been harassing Ayotte “to do your job as a Senator” and have a hearing and vote on Garland. During some town hall meetings in the state, Ayotte received some blistering criticism from participants over the issue.
For their part, Hassan and the Democrats feel this is an issue that will fire up the base against Ayotte and other Republicans. Considering that a vast swath of the electorate do not even know how many Supreme Court Justices there are, the efficacy of that tactic remains to be seen.
Thus far, it does not seem to be paying off, nor does Planned Parenthood’s $400,000 ad buy in New Hampshire casting Ayotte as dangerous to women’s health. Some within the Ayotte campaign have described Ayotte as trying to make the best of a bad situation with Trump at the top of the ticket by distancing herself from his more bombastic statements and sometimes being critical of the Trump.
Further, besides incumbency and a solid fundraising base, Ayotte remains fairly popular for a sitting Senator. She sports a 42% approval rating which is skirting the cusp for reelection as an incumbent (45% seems to be the targeted number with anything over 50% guaranteed). In several polls conducted pitting Hassan against her, Ayotte maintains an average 2.3% lead. Few polls have shown Hassan ahead and many showing a tie.
As for Hassan, she enjoys a slightly higher approval rating at 43% with some of that caused by her handling of a state budget impasse which finally resolved itself in favor of the budget Hassan fought against. To some, this was viewed as Democratic obstruction. The GOP is using this to their advantage along with Harry Reid’s support for Hassan as indicative of the Democratic candidate. The US Chamber of Commerce is portraying Hassan as a typical liberal vote while the America Rising PAC is running ads centered on tax and fee increases under Governor Hassan.
Given the political instability in the state, it is wise for Ayotte to keep Trump at arm’s length during this campaign. She realizes she faces a serious challenge to reelection regardless of how formidable Hassan may be as an opponent. And although formidable, Hassan has to consider the fact that it was Bernie Sanders, not Hillary Clinton, who won the Democratic primary in New Hampshire in a crushing manner with over 60% of the vote.
Some interviews with independent voters may be indicative of how this race can play out IF Ayotte intelligently fights off the attacks and uses Democratic Party criticism and conservative criticisms to her advantage and portrays herself as being a voice for the people of New Hampshire. As several voters have noted, especially independents, they intend to split their ticket come November and vote for Clinton and Ayotte for Senate.
This will be a bell weather race as to how well the GOP Senatorial candidates can withstand a toxic and polarizing candidate at the top of the ticket. It is an East Coast state and returns should be coming in early in the night. It will be obviously a close race as most polls indicate. But ironically, Ayotte may be better positioned than some other candidates to weather Hurricane Trump.