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Hassan claims 'bipartisanship' as a touchstone. How much does that matter to N.H. voters?

Maggie Hassan talks to voters on primary day in September 2022.
Dan Tuohy
Sen. Maggie Hassan, seen here greeting supporters on primary day, Sept. 13, 2022, has touted her bipartisan credentials in her campaign this year.

A core argument in U.S. Senator Maggie Hassan’s case for reelection this year is that she’s independent and bipartisan. Both descriptors are ones many voters will tell you they like; neither is much associated with politics in Washington these days.

A recent ad by Hassan highlighted those words —“independent” and “bipartisan” — five times in just 30 seconds. But what’s the basis for that campaign season claim?

Hassan was, in fact named “most bipartisan senator” by the Lugar Center, a non-profit founded by former Sen. Richard Lugar, a Republican from Indiana who died in 2019. The Lugar Center’s Bipartisan Index ranks members of Congress on the number of bills they sponsor with lawmakers from the opposite party.

Here’s how Lugar himself explained the index on CSPAN back in 2016:

“You are getting scored on the number of times you introduce bills, and more importantly, [the number of times] you get somebody on the opposite side of the aisle to support you, and preferably more than one person on the opposite side of the aisle. That means you’ve got to be really working the problems of the country.”

But while the Lugar Index measures the volume of bipartisan bills, it does not judge the bills’ subject matter. So while Hassan has been involved in some consequential bills — including the recent Chips and Science Act which directs $50 billion to boost research related to semiconductors — she has also reached across the aisle to cosponsor lots of less consequential measures that are not destined to become law.

But the bipartisan index’s premise — that bills with bipartisan backing are more likely to pass — is sound enough, especially in a closely divided Congress. But being “bipartisan” in this index doesn't mean you are necessarily a centrist, though lawmakers who tend to score well over time – Sen. Susan Collins of Maine has mostly topped the index – do tend to be politically moderate.

The point of promoting bipartisanship

The politics here are pretty clear: Stressing bipartisanship is a way to try to stand apart from political gridlock, something polls have long indicated voters say they hate about Washington.

But the current political environment is also one in which distrust of the opposing political party is particularly acute. The most recent Granite State Poll from the University of New Hampshire also shows fully 30 percent of New Hampshire voters say their top priority is beating the other party - more than any single policy issue -- not the most bipartisan sentiment. 

On its face, that may not seem to make much sense. But if you spend much time talking to voters you can find people who embody what can feel like a contradiction.

“It’s just very cliquey, right now: Everybody sticks together with what they believe in, and I feel like the politics are dividing everyone right now,” Artie Hazzard, a GOP voter from Londonderry told NHPR recently.

At the time, Hazzard was wearing a T-shirt mocking Joe Biden and said he planned to vote straight ticket Republican on Election Day. So, voters can and do find a way to justify a distaste for divisive politics and an embrace of extreme partisanship.

Will Hassan’s approach pay off?

Given the nature of New Hampshire’s electorate, which tends to swing with the national mood, every vote could count in Hassan’s race to seek reelection against Republican Don Bolduc. And what Hassan’s campaign is doing amounts to a time-tested move for candidates in her situation: an incumbent with soft poll numbers running against a partisan tide in a midterm election.

“They know that there are going to be primarily the other party’s people showing up, and if you can hive off, 3, 4, 5 percent of those people, by claiming to be bipartisan, because nobody likes the partisan antagonism, it’s a good strategy,” said UNH pollster and political scientist Andy Smith.

The strategy of stressing bipartisanship is not likely to change. Hassan's ad touting it remains in heavy rotation.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
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