Hassan Senate Run Will Have Ripple Effect Across N.H. Politics

Oct 5, 2015

NHPR’s Josh Rogers spoke with All Things Considered host Peter Biello to discuss Gov. Maggie Hassan's announcement that she is running for U.S. Senate in 2016.

BIELLO: So, long anticipated, now official. What’s this mean?

ROGERS: Well, for starters, it means that 2016 will be a very big political year in New Hampshire. In Maggie Hassan, Democrats have their strongest candidate to take on Kelly Ayotte, who’s served just one term but is seen as a real up-and-comer in the GOP nationally. This match-up puts the seat in play, and as one of only a handful of true toss-up seats in the country, that means it will also attract big spending. And both candidates are well-positioned to raise lots of money. Ayotte has well-heeled fans of her hawkish foreign policy views and her anti-abortion stances, for example. Hassan, meanwhile, is very popular among abortion rights supporters and environmental groups. So, we are talking about core constituencies in each party.

But both candidates will also be out to show they are not captive to their parties, right?

Indeed. As you may have gathered from her campaign announcement, Hassan likes to talk about bi-partisanship a lot. Governing with a divided Legislature demands as much, of course. And anyone who’s been paying attention has heard Ayotte lately turn up the volume on her bipartisan talk as well. I think her loud criticism of Republicans who backed shutting down the government over defunding of Planned Parenthood will be invoked, for instance.

But both candidates will have to keep busy reminding voters of this because each is going to be cast as ideologues, by each other’s campaigns and certainly their national allies. Republicans will try to pillory Hassan as a big-spender, who’s backed lots of taxes in her day. Democrats will try to tar Ayotte as someone out of touch with voters on things likes guns, abortion rights, the minimum wage, and college affordability.

So, it sounds like you expect this race to very much follow what you could call a national partisan script?

U.S. Senate races often do, and I think the fact that this race will occur in a presidential year will probably add to that. But another thing that’s interesting here is, you have two politicians with high name recognition, who are very much insiders in their parties. Hassan's first involvement in state government came at the invitation of Jeanne Shaheen, now New Hampshire's senior senator. And Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid clearly wanted Hassan to run for Senate. Ayotte, meanwhile, was recruited by the RNC to seek federal office when she was still New Hampshire’s attorney general. She was instantly the favored candidate of local party leaders. So, the tribal aspect of this will be pronounced. As one longtime political observer said to me today, this one will be all against all.  

With the Hassan vs. Ayotte match-up set, what about the governor’s race?

Well, right now Executive Councilor Chris Sununu, a Republican from Newfields, is the only official candidate. That will change. Democrat Colin Van Ostern of Concord, also an executive councilor, is expected to run. He issued a statement Monday saying he will have “a definitive announcement” in the coming days. Several state senators in both parties are also looking at the corner office. And you know, in most years, the governor’s race really sets the tone for the parties, and tends to create any coattail effect if there is one. But that may be different in a presidential year, when all the down-tickets candidates may be affected by what happens up top. And presidential races are subject to so many variables.

It’s true, however, that the Democratic presidential nominee has carried New Hampshire in five of the past six elections. Many top Democrats here have long felt Hillary Clinton could give them all a boost, and potentially maximize the edge they tend to enjoy over Republicans with women voters. We’ll see, and one thing to watch is how Ayotte tries to blunt that.

Thanks Josh.