Ayotte vs. Hassan: Senate Race Will Come Down to Records, Money, and Presidential Politics

Apr 28, 2016

2016 is a big year politically for New Hampshire, and excepting the Presidential contest, no election will get as much scrutiny as the U.S. Senate race between Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte and Democratic challenger Maggie Hassan.

Ayotte has a primary to get through but her likely general election battle with the Governor is already underway. Joining Morning Edition’s Rick Ganley to talk about the race so far is Josh Rogers, NHPR’s Senior Political Reporter.

So by all accounts this race is consequential. It’s among a handful that could decide the balance of the US Senate. Kelly Ayotte and Maggie Hassan are both well known and well-liked by voters here, and seen as rising figures in their parties nationally. Is it fair to say both embody their parties mainstream?

I think so. As a former attorney general, law and order was a big part of Kelly Ayotte's pitch when she ran in 2010. During her five plus years in DC, Ayotte has built a reputation for being serious, and hawkish on national security matters. She also cuts a fairly conservative figure on social issues. Her first national political exposure came back in 2005 when she argued New Hampshire’s since-repealed parental notification law before the US Supreme court. Ayotte’s been popular with national anti-abortion groups ever since. Her supporters in New Hampshire tend to talk up Ayotte’s record on fiscal issues. But some in her party complain she’s not lived up to past promises, which is one reason Ayotte’s facing a primary challenge from Jim Rubens. We’ll see where that goes, but it looks more like an irritant than any real threat.

Governor Hassan, meanwhile, faces no explicit challenge from within her party.

No -- and no implicit once either. Hassan’s political challenges – with the exception of a primary when she ran in 2012 and her failure to get her own party to back her push for casinos during her first term – have pretty much always come from Republicans. And, you know, absent cooperation with some Republicans, she never would have been able to enact and extend Medicaid expansion, which is probably her biggest policy accomplishment as governor.

Republicans have said Governor Hassan’s accomplishments, at least the fiscal ones, think state budgets, and a growing rainy day fund, are theirs more than hers.

Sure. And she has and will point to things like Medicaid and the state budget as products of collaboration. While the collaboration was of necessity given the partisan makeup in Concord, it is also a fact. And few voters, particularly ones who aren’t rank partisans, are likely to dwell much on small details on this front that her campaign or Republicans might stress. And one thing we have heard from Hassan repeatedly is the argument that in New Hampshire, we may have differences, but we come together and get things done, unlike in Washington. That’s not a new contention. I mean, John Lynch used to say that in every state of the state speech. But a tough point for any US Senator, regardless of whether they’ve done some work across the aisle - as Kelly Ayotte has - to rebut.

Hassan and Ayotte attend an event in Nashua in March
Credit Josh Rogers for NHPR

OK, so for Kelly Ayotte, Washington itself will be a problem.

Hassan’s campaign and its allies clearly think so….And when interest groups like the Senate Democratic PAC affiliated with Harry Reid or Planned Parenthood’s political arm has run ads going after Ayotte, her campaign’s comeback has been “more attacks from Governor Hassan’s Washington allies.” So on that much there is agreement, being affiliated with Washington is not a plus.

You mention ads. This race is expected to be an expensive one. Both candidates will be well-funded. And money will be flow from outside groups. What are the issues we’ll see highlighted?

Well what we’ve seen most recently are ads going after Ayotte on abortion, and her opposition to holding hearings on Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court. This is cast as obstructionism. GOP groups have meanwhile targeted Hassan on spending. National security is also seen as a place where Hassan may be vulnerable.

Related: Ayotte, Hassan Fail to Agree on People's Pledge, Opening Door to Outside Groups

Kelly Ayotte used her first ad of the campaign – a radio spot last year – to nick Hassan in on a comment she made in the wake of the Paris bombings. Ayotte’s campaign and her political allies have tried to make the President’s desire to close Guantanamo Bay prison an issue. Hassan and her allies, meanwhile see Ayotte’s environmental record as a weakness. So expect that to get a real vetting.

How both sell themselves as the better champion of polices related to the opioid crisis is another thing to watch for. You know, boiling that issue into a partisan message is less charted territory. But, generally, much of what we will see in the messaging could be applied in any swing state senate race. We saw a similar nationalization of message a good deal in the Jeanne Shaheen/Scott Brown race two years ago. Total spending in that race topped $55 million dollars. This race is expected to top that number.

It’s obviously a presidential year. How much of a role might that play?

That’s one thing that could really affect this race. Another is obviously world events, and who know what could happen there. As far as it being a presidential year, history suggests that presidential years boost turnout and higher turnout helps democrats. Assuming Hillary Clinton is on the ticket, Democrats believe it will leverage women voters – though that didn’t go quite according to plan in the New Hampshire primary. But a general election is a different animal. And if Donald Trump is the GOP nominee, who can say with any confidence what that may bring? Maybe a slightly different electorate? Hassan, you know, is a big Clinton backer, while Ayotte has kept her distance from Trump. She’s said she’ll support the GOP nominee, including Trump, and basically leaves it at that. Recall four years ago all the campaign Ayotte did with Mitt Romney. Her own election is obviously her focus this time.