By James Arkin
For months, presidential candidates have swamped New Hampshire voters with political ads, campaign mailers and town-hall gatherings as they seek a win in the Granite State primary. But once they leave town, another crucial race is looming: the fight for one of the state’s U.S. Senate seats.
It’s one of the highest-profile races of the year, featuring a popular first-term incumbent in Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte and a popular sitting Democratic governor, Maggie Hassan, as the challenger. And it could help determine control of the upper chamber.
In a state where voters are intimately familiar with the presidential candidates and deeply involved in the political process, the top of the ticket could play a major role in determining who wins this seat come November.
The race is close, with Ayotte leading by a thin margin in most polls – she has a 4.7 percentage-point lead in the RealClearPolitics average – and both candidates raising more than $2 million in the final quarter last year.
Ayotte declined to endorse anyone in the GOP presidential field and has avoided talking about the race in which Donald Trump holds a 17-point lead in the RCPaverage. Sen. Ted Cruz, who won the Iowa caucuses, is in third place, 2.4 points behind Marco Rubio. Over the past several months, Democrats – and even some Republicans – have argued either candidate winning the nomination would be a problem for the first-term senator’s re-election.
In the Senate basement last week, Ayotte again told reporters she isn’t endorsing in the race, and when asked if she is concerned about the impact on her campaign, she said she’s “focusing on doing my job.”
Both the New Hampshire Democratic Party and Senate Democrats’ campaign committee are trying to tie Ayotte to Trump and Cruz, attempting to link her to the latter’s conservative message and the former’s more controversial policies, including his call to ban Muslims from entering the U.S.
The attacks could be effective. Granite State Republicans are more moderate than GOP voters in Iowa, according to Andrew Smith, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, and care more about economic issues than social issues. That doesn’t bode well for Cruz’s style of conservatism.
“Ted Cruz is too extreme for New Hampshire and Democrats could just beat that horse all through the entire campaign and that, I think, would be effective,” Smith told RCP.
As for Trump, it may be more complicated. He has long led in the New Hampshire polls and is in a strong position heading into Tuesday’s primary.
Dante Scala, also a political science professor at UNH, said Trump’s nomination could significantly hurt Ayotte’s chances, or he might do better there in a general election than many are predicting, and possibly help her. Either way, however, Scala argued that neither candidate is optimal for Ayotte in a close race.
“I think the answer Ayotte would give is ‘Neither of the above, please,’” Scala said. “‘Give me Rubio, give me someone who is a more mainstream Republican. Don’t throw me a Cruz or a Trump if I can avoid it.’ But I think she would know what she would get with Cruz, and so if those were her only two choices, she might say to herself, ‘Well, let’s roll the dice on Trump because I know what I’m going to be getting with Cruz and it’s going to be pain.’”
Aaron Jacobs, a spokesman for Hassan’s campaign, said Ayotte “refuses to criticize either Trump or Cruz, can’t bring herself to make an endorsement and has said she will support either if they are the nominee.”
Ayotte is a top target for Democrats, who only need to pick up five seats (four if a Democrat wins the White House) to take control of the Senate. Besides New Hampshire, the party is targeting GOP-held seats in Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Wisconsin.
Read more here: Presidential Primary Could Impact N.H. Senate Race