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Incumbent and Underdog Cross Paths as Ayotte, Rubens File for U.S. Senate Primary

Jason Moon for NHPR

When Kelly Ayotte officially registered her candidacy for re-election to the Senate yesterday, many were focused on how a race between her and Gov. Maggie Hassan might play out. But before she can get to that, Ayotte must first contend with a primary challenge from Jim Rubens, a former Republican state senator. He also filed his candidacy yesterday.

Ayotte started her visit to the State House with a rally on the front lawn. There, she was introduced by former Republican Governor Steve Merrill who described her as a fighter who knows how to get things done. Then Ayotte’s husband Joseph Daley talked about the senator’s softer side.

“She shops at Market Basket on Sunday and she’s happy to chat with you while waiting for sandwich meat at the deli, or to accept to the two-for-one coupon from the grandmother in the register line next to her for those bags of chips for Kate and Jake," he said.

When Ayotte herself took the stage, she pledged to continue working on her priorities in Washington.

“You know so much of the work that I do every day getting up on your behalf is fighting," she said "Fighting red tape in Washington that comes down, that hurts our small businesses.”

Then, Ayotte and her dozens of supporters headed inside to the Secretary of State’s office to make her candidacy official. But along the way they were met by protestors upset over Ayotte’s efforts to block President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. Competing chants erupted from the pro and anti Ayotte groups.

Credit Jason Moon for NHPR

As Ayotte spoke to reporters inside the Secretary of State's office, she seemed focused on her general election prospects -- criticizing Hassan on foreign policy and fielding questions about Donald Trump.

When she was finally asked about her primary challenger, Ayotte responded diplomatically, without mentioning his name.

“You know I take the candidates as they come and I’ll certainly be getting out to Republican voters, too, to talk about what I’ve worked on for New Hampshire. And I plan to certainly run a very vigorous race in both the primary and general election.”

With that, Ayotte --along with her supporters and detractors-- filed out the front doors of the State House.

At about that time, former state senator, and Ayotte’s challenger, Jim Rubens was just arriving. Rubens did without a rally, quietly slipping in the back door, with his wife and one reporter.

Rubens is running on a platform that includes tougher border security and a non-interventionist foreign policy. And as we walked up the steps to the Secretary of State’s office he offered his take on the senate race, and how he can win it.

“We’ve got two candidates, Hassan and Ayotte, who are both systemically ducking the major issues," he said. "They’re almost identical to each other in positions, so I’m providing an option, an alternative for voters for a candidate who is willing to confront these major issues.”

Just outside the Secretary of State’s office, Rubens greeted the handful of volunteers who came out to show their support.

As Rubens filled out his paperwork, it was easy to forget that just minutes before, the same room was filled with the sound of dozens of political activists shouting campaign slogans. Now the room was filled with awkward silences.

Credit Jason Moon for NHPR

Speaking with reporters afterwards, Rubens acknowledged his underdog status: fewer resources and less party support than Ayotte. When asked if that made him a protest candidate, Rubens jumped on the chance to compare himself to two politicians with recent success in New Hampshire.

“Was Bernie Sanders a protest candidate here in New Hampshire? Darn right, and he won in a landslide. Was Donald Trump a protest candidate here in New Hampshire? You’re darn right, and he won by a landslide. The American people have discovered –particularly here in New Hampshire—that Washington is busted.”

Whether Rubens will be able to claim the outsider mantle as effectively as Sanders or Trumps remains to be seen. In the meantime, simply reminding voters that Ayotte isn’t running against Maggie Hassan just yet may be his best bet.

Jason Moon is a senior reporter and producer on the Document team. He has created longform narrative podcast series on topics ranging from unsolved murders, to presidential elections, to secret lists of police officers.

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