Politics

In N.H., a critical US Senate race is already taking shape

Governor Maggie Hassan (left) may challenge Senator Kelly Ayotte.
Jim Cole/Associated Press
Governor Maggie Hassan (left) may challenge Senator Kelly Ayotte.

CONCORD, N.H. — After the most expensive Senate race in New Hampshire history, when Democratic incumbent Jeanne Shaheen defeated Republican Scott Brown last November, another Senate contest is already taking shape.

If it plays out the way activists from both parties hope and expect, it could be the most prominent campaign among two women for the Senate in the nation’s history.

And history is not the only reason that a potential matchup between Senator Kelly Ayotte, a Republican, and Governor Maggie Hassan matters. Such a race could also decide the fate of a rising national Republican star, determine which party controls the Senate, and further define a state in the middle of a long simmering political identity crisis.

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Already the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee is blasting away at the Democratic governor’s proposed state budget. New Hampshire Democrats hired Hassan’s former spokesman to hit Ayotte with return fire. The state Republican Party has vowed to seek Hassan’s travel records every month to see when she is meeting with potential donors. Karl Rove’s political arm is already running radio ads against Hassan.

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For now, all that is known for sure is that Ayotte is seeking reelection. After winning her first Senate race with a whopping 60 percent of the vote in 2010, Ayotte has been repeatedly called a rising star in Republican politics. In 2012, Mitt Romney openly talked about picking her as his running mate. While she didn’t get the gig, she did get a speaking spot at the Republican National Convention. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina predicted this week that he expects to see her on a national ticket some time in the future.

But they said the same thing about former New Hampshire senator John E. Sununu. That chatter stopped after the Republican lost his bid for a second term in 2008, a presidential election year, which typically benefits Democrats here. In 2016, Ayotte faces the same task Sununu did.

An NBC News/Marist poll last month of a hypothetical matchup showed Hassan leading Ayotte 48 percent to 44 percent. A University of New Hampshire poll around the same time showed Hassan twice as well liked as Ayotte.

Democrats here hope, and are working with the premise, that Hassan will challenge Ayotte. After former governor John Lynch, the most popular governor in state history, Hassan, a two-time winner statewide, is the biggest recruit for New Hampshire Democrats. Lynch has repeatedly said he doesn’t want to serve in Washington.

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Hassan is not likely to make a decision until at least July, when the state budget is finished. Close friends and aides to Hassan agree there is about a 50-50 shot at her running for the Senate instead of the easier path of seeking a third term as governor.

Still, pressure on her from Washington hasn’t even begun.

“Both sides assume that this race was going to happen the moment Maggie Hassan won the race for governor,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican consultant deeply involved in New Hampshire politics.

New Hampshire Democratic National Committeewoman Kathy Sullivan said no one in Democratic politics knows for sure whether Hassan will run, so the focus is to keep the pressure on Ayotte and create an environment helpful to Hassan or a different Democrat.

“This is a seat we can win with the right candidate, and a sitting popular governor would be a great candidate,” Sullivan said.

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If Democrats have any hope of picking up the five seats needed to win back the Senate majority next year, then they must win in New Hampshire, experts say.

‘Both sides assume that this race was going to happen the moment Maggie Hassan won the race for governor.’

“If you look at the math for Democrats, it is not easy to get back the majority. They have the opportunity, but you have to have New Hampshire on that list,” said Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report.

Publications like Politico and the National Journal have already listed Ayotte’s reelection as one of the most closely watched, along with races in Colorado, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Wisconsin, in terms of determining which party can control the Senate with a new president taking office.

Should Hassan run, it would have a domino effect on other New Hampshire races down the ballot. As members of Congress, executive councilors, and state senators consider running for the open governor’s seat, their own seats, in turn, could be up for grabs.

Ayotte does appear to be taking her reelection seriously. At the end of 2014, she had more than $2 million cash on hand in her campaign account. At the same point in their own reelection campaigns for the Senate, Shaheen had $375,000 and Sununu had $737,000.

In addition, Ayotte has already hired a campaign manager, Ben Sparks, and there are plans to add additional staff soon. This could give her a head start over Hassan, who has not opened a federal account, but does continues to employ her former campaign manager as a political consultant. Hassan has also used her campaign e-mail list to engage her supporters in her budget fight with the Republican-dominated Legislature.

More publicly, the jabs at each other have been subtle. For example, when Ayotte was a leader in a showdown over funding the Department of Homeland Security, Hassan used her governor’s office to send a press release describing the potential negative impact on New Hampshire, had Ayotte had her way.

There have been other competitive races for the Senate in the past decade featuring two female candidates, including in North Carolina, Hawaii, Maryland, and Maine. None of them featured a sitting senator against a sitting governor.

Women running for top races is nothing new in the Granite State. In 2013, the state made national history for having its entire congressional delegation made up of women, with Hassan as governor as an additional bonus.

Interestingly, when a sitting governor challenges an incumbent senator, historically the governor is twice as likely to win. Sitting governors have run against incumbent senators 19 times since 1946, with a record of 13-6.

One person with a unique perspective on an Ayotte-versus-Hassan race is Republican attorney Ovide Lamontagne. He narrowly lost the Republican Senate nomination to Ayotte in 2010 before losing the general election to Hassan for governor in 2012.

Lamontagne, who has not ruled out a primary challenge to Ayotte, said both candidates would be formidable because both would be heavily supported by national third-party groups. There was more third-party spending per vote in Lamontagne’s race against Hassan than any other that year, according to an analysis by the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity. Most of that money came from EMILY’s List and the Democratic Governors Association in support of Hassan.

For the rest of 2015, the early stages of this campaign will take place in the background of the presidential primary already underway in the state. After that, Lamontagne says, the election will have to be won on the ground.

“You have two bright and accomplished women who have demonstrated they can run for office and win,” said Lamontagne. “If this contest actually happens, I guarantee you this: It will be no holds barred.”

James Pindell can be reached at James.Pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.