On the Political Front: N.H.'s High-Stakes U.S. Senate Race Heats Up

Feb 29, 2016

Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

"On the Primary Front" is our weekly check-in with NHPR's Senior Political Reporter Josh Rogers.

So, Josh the primary is long gone, Super Tuesday is upon us, and the state lawmakers are back from vacation with lots going on.

And the U.S. Senate race is kicking into gear.

OK, let’s start there.

Sure. And if anyone were ever under the illusion that this very high stakes contest – it could end up deciding control of the U.S. Senate – would wait until summer before really getting going, we now know they were wrong. From the president’s plan to close Guantanamo bay, to the filling the Supreme Court vacancy left by the death of Justice Scalia, to whether or not they can reach agreement on how to limit outside money in their race, Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Gov. Maggie Hassan have been going at it.

One thing that’s struck me is how on several of these issues, like Guantanamo, or the question of U.S. policy on Syrian refugees, we’ve got Sen. Ayotte starkly opposed to President Obama, which you might expect, but we also have Gov. Hassan at odds with the President. On closing Guantanamo, for instance, Hassan immediately said she’s skeptical of the President’s plans. Last week, the Governor also indicated her position on Syrian refugees – recall she was the lone Democratic governor in the country to call for a pause in resettlement last fall – is unchanged. That’s after  hearing from FBI during a meeting of the National Governors Association in D.C. last week. On both these issues the Governor’s bottom line is the same: protecting public safety she says is job one for any governor. True, perhaps, but it will be interesting to see if distancing herself from the president, particularly on matters dealing with national security, continues.

Now there’s no distance between the governor and the president on appointing a replacement for Justice Scalia.

No, and Hassan’s campaign is really going after Sen. Ayotte on this. Ayotte says appointing a Scalia replacement should wait until we have a new president, and then she said won’t even meet with anyone President Obama might nominate. Her stance is one GOP Senate leaders, primary voters, and the national Republican donor class might back, but probably  a tougher sell with the a general election voters here in New Hampshire. The Hassan campaign certainly thinks so

Let’s turn to the state house for a minute, where things will be busy this week.

This year’s biggest bill, the reauthorization of Medicaid expansion, is getting worked on in the House Finance Committee. What happens there is probably crucial as far as what happens on the House floor later this month, which will be this bill;s real test. Another big bill, one that aims to suspend the imposition of the death penalty, will be voted on by the full Senate this week.

So the bill would not repeal the death penalty, just suspend it.

Credit Daniel S Hurd via Flickr CC

Yes. Specifically, “until such time as a mechanism is in place to ensure that no one who is innocent can be executed.” Now backers of this bill will tell you that that language aims to be tantamount to a permanent suspension. They will also tell you it was crafted to do something a straight repeal bill probably couldn’t, which is pass. Two years ago, a bill repealing the death penalty cleared the House but died when the Senate deadlocked 12-12.

Care to make any predictions?

This bill came out of committee with a positive vote and has a good shot. The Senate membership has changed since that 12-12 vote.

Anything else of note this week?

Lots and lots of committee votes and work sessions. It’s a busy time of year for pushing bills towards the floor. But there are some bills that are still awaiting their first public hearings. Later Monday morning, the House Criminal Justice Committee will allow the public to weigh in on a bill to ban women from exposing their nipples publicly. This bill springs from a court ruling that found no constitutional right for women to go topless but also that it wasn’t illegal. There is a breast feeding carve out in the bill. That hearing could be spirited.

In the afternoon that same committee will take up a bill to make bestiality a felony. New Hampshire is one of nearly a dozen states where sexual activity with animals, which some states banned in the colonial era, has never been outlawed. Vermont’s apparently in the same boat.