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In The New Hampshire Senate Race, Coping With Clinton And Trump

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, left, and Gov. Maggie Hassan
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, left, and Gov. Maggie Hassan

The New Hampshire Senate contest is being watched nationally. It’s a case study in how this year’s unique presidential contest could affect down-ballot contests in both parties, and possibly change who controls Congress. And right now, it’s too close to call.

On the Friday before Memorial Day, Sen. Kelly Ayotte worked the room at Liberty House, a veterans’ home and sober-living facility on a gritty street in Manchester. After a change in policy at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development denied Liberty House access to federal funding, Ayotte told the small crowd, she worked to get it restored.

“Whatever struggles they have,” Ayotte said, “this is a place we know veterans can come and really turn their lives around.”

Afterward, the Republican incumbent told me her work for Liberty House epitomizes her approach to politics: pragmatic and bipartisan.

“I’ve worked very hard, across the aisle, to get results for the people of New Hampshire,” Ayotte said. “The heroin and opioid epidemic facing the state, I worked across the aisle as one of the lead sponsors of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. I worked across the aisle to get healthcare for our veterans with Sen. [Jean] Shaheen.”

In a two-minute span, Ayotte used the phrase “across the aisle” six times.

A few days later, I caught her Democratic opponent, New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, after a Manchester event of her own—and discovered that Hassan sees herself as exactly the same type of politician.

“Bipartisan focus on mounting strong response to opioid crisis,” Hassan said, rattling off a select list of gubernatorial achievements. “Bipartisan Medicaid expansion program. We’ve worked together in a bipartisan way to build a modern and safe transportation infrastructure.”

There’s another major similarity that unites these two opponents: Each has to deal with a presumptive presidential nominee who’s deeply unpopular. A recent Boston Herald/Franklin Pierce poll found that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are viewed unfavorably by more than 60 percent of New Hampshire voters.

But Hassan and Ayotte are handling that shared challenge very differently.

When I asked Ayotte for her reaction to Trump clinching the Republican nomination, she didn’t exactly wax enthusiastic.

“Obviously a very vigorous primary, and he, uh, has secured the votes for the nomination,” she replied.

Ayotte is striking a tricky balance—saying she’ll vote for Trump, but won’t endorse him. She’s also among the big-name Republicans who won’t attend the GOP convention this summer.

According to Ayotte, though, that’s not an attempt to send a subtle anti-Trump message.

“New Hampshire voters aren’t at the convention. They’re here in New Hampshire!” Ayotte said. “So I’ll be doing events throughout our state” as other Republicans gather in Cleveland in July.

In contrast, Hassan is embracing the Democratic frontrunner. Not only is she attending the Democratic National Convention, she’s a Clinton superdelegate. And as she tells it, her priorities and Clinton’s are basically identical.

“What Hillary Clinton and I are both focused on is looking at what we can do to make sure that everybody who is working hard has a chance to get ahead, a chance at the American dream,” she said. “Lower cost of higher education, protecting Medicare and Social Security, making sure women can make their own health care decisions and control their own destiny.”

That’s a jab at Ayotte’s previously stated position that Roe v. Wade should be overturned, which has made her a top target of Planned Parenthood in the current election cycle.

While Hassan’s decision to align herself so closely with such an unpopular candidate may seem risky, St. Anselm political science professor Chris Galdieri thinks there’s some logic to Hassan’s approach.

“I think Clinton is going to be less of a danger to Hassan’s campaign than Trump is, potentially, for the Ayotte campaign,” Galdieri said.

“The Hassan campaign is not going to get a phone call that says, ‘Hillary Clinton just said all Mexicans are rapists. Do you agree or disagree?’” he added. “And I think the danger is not just there, but it’s ever-present for the Ayotte campaign.”

Case in point: This week, Ayotte condemned Trump’s incendiary suggestion that the judge in the Trump University case is tainted by his Mexican ancestry.  

And if no one else is linking Ayotte to Trump, Hassan is happy to do it herself.

“I’m very concerned that my opponent is supporting and voting for Donald Trump, whose foreign policy has been called by members of both parties dangerous and reckless,” she told me in Manchester.

In contrast, Ayotte didn’t mention Hassan or Clinton once during our conversation—another striking difference in a race that could go either way.


Copyright 2016 GBH

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