CLAREMONT, N.H. — Senator Maggie Hassan has arguably been the most vulnerable senator up for reelection this year ever since she squeaked past a popular incumbent by just 1,017 votes in November 2016.
But as the Democrat heads into the fall campaigning to keep her job in purple New Hampshire, she may now hold a different title: luckiest.
Hassan is battling for survival, raising huge amounts of money, publicly bucking her party at times, plastering the airwaves with ads touting bipartisan credentials, and crisscrossing the state in a blitz of retail politicking.
“Every election cycle here is about earning the vote of Granite Staters,” she said in an interview with the Globe after a tour of a small local screen-printing and embroidery factory last week. “You should never take anything for granted because we are a deeply independent place and people really are going to evaluate things on a kind of candidate-by-candidate basis and on a year-to-year basis.”
But in a year when Democrats were supposed to get drubbed across the country in the midterms, Hassan is a prime example of a surprisingly positive turnaround for her party in Senate races. A series of fortunate-for-her events have put her in a much stronger position for November than her approval numbers, which are underwater, alone would predict.
First, popular incumbent Republican Governor Chris Sununu decided to run for reelection instead of challenging her. That kicked off a messy GOP Senate primary beset by infighting. And in June, the Supreme Court’s decision to topple Roe v. Wade handed Hassan a powerful talking point in a state where 70 percent of voters say they support abortion rights. She and other Democrats have eagerly used the opinion to paint the generally antiabortion GOP field as extreme.
New Hampshire’s last-in-the-nation primary date, Sept. 13, is also aiding Hassan. Whoever emerges victorious from the fractured GOP primary will have only eight weeks to appeal to general election voters and try to raise enough money to keep up with Hassan, who had more than $7 million as of June. Hassan’s nine field offices span the state and she has 50 people on her campaign staff, including veterans from her previous successful statewide runs for Senate and as a two-term governor.
Along with a series of significant bipartisan achievements in Washington and falling gas prices, Hassan feels she has plenty to tout on the campaign trail. It’s a far cry from an awkward early stretch of the race this spring that featured the senator fighting her own party on immigration issues as she tried to out-border-hawk the GOP, which angered progressives.
“I think that the race has turned,” said Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess, a Democrat. “Six months ago, things looked very dire for some of these Democratic candidates across the country, and I think the mood here has changed.”
But Hassan still faces an uphill fight. Both polling and interviews with voters suggest a depth of frustration with politicians and deep pessimism about the nation’s economy amid high inflation and a dire shortage of workers and housing in New Hampshire.
In a recent St. Anselm College poll, just 21 percent of voters said the country was on the right track while 68 percent said it was on the wrong track. And despite her wide name recognition — even her detractors familiarly call her “Maggie” — only 39 percent of voters said Hassan deserves reelection as opposed to 53 percent who said they prefer someone new.
With the notable exception of her support for abortion rights, the senator mostly sticks to highlighting pocketbook issues, and stresses her willingness to work with Republicans in Washington.
Few voters in a state known for its political engagement seem tuned into the race at this stage, despite the primary being three weeks away and fewer than 80 days remaining until Election Day. In some parts of the state, “now hiring” signs reflecting the state’s worker shortage almost outnumber any campaign signs for the Senate race, despite numerous signs for other races.
“It’s a little bit of, you know, you don’t feel like it’s gonna make a big difference,” said Cait DiVincenzo, 37, an account executive at a Nashua software company Hassan visited. The Salem resident said she leans left, but was more focused on her toddler than the campaign. “So you just focus on what’s fun and happy and in front of you. And that’s not politics for me.”
Other voters echoed DiVincenzo’s sentiment.
“It’s just that it’s so confusing that it’s like, who do you trust?” said Nick Kotekas, a 69-year-old Manchester native who doesn’t identify strongly with a party but voted for Donald Trump despite lamenting him being an “idiot.”
Whether Hassan can prevail may hinge on whom Republicans nominate to face her. The St. Anselm poll had Don Bolduc — a retired Army brigadier general who echoes Trump’s false claims of having won the 2020 election and ran unsuccessfully for Senate that year — in the lead with 32 percent. Establishment-preferred candidates were behind, with state Senate President Chuck Morse at 16 percent and Londonderry Town Manager Kevin Smith at 4 percent. Thirty-nine percent of Republican voters were undecided.
“The electorate is unhappy . . . and that is bringing down incumbents,“ said Neil Levesque, executive director of St. Anselm’s New Hampshire Institute of Politics. “Will the Republican voters nominate a candidate that can win a general election? That is a big question mark.”
Some experienced Republicans fear Bolduc will get the nomination. Sununu dismissed Bolduc as “not a serious candidate” in a recent New Hampshire radio interview. Bolduc has called Sununu a “Chinese Communist sympathizer,” though he later tried to walk back his words.
Steve Duprey, a former longtime Republican Party official in New Hampshire, said that Hassan should be beatable in November amid high inflation and energy costs. Duprey, who backs Morse and voted for Joe Biden in 2020, also believes Sununu’s popularity and national party money will buoy Republicans — unless voters choose Bolduc.
“Maggie’s done I think a very effective job of communicating the bills she has worked on, she’s running good ads . . . and she’s a good campaigner, so those are all things in her favor,” Duprey said. “If we have some of the other candidates as nominees, I think Hassan could walk away with the race.”
It’s unclear how much the national GOP plans to invest in New Hampshire this fall. Neither the National Senatorial Republican Committee nor Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell’s PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, responded to requests for comment. Politico reported that McConnell’s PAC had not yet purchased ad time in the state. However, another McConnell-aligned group that buys issued-oriented ads has been blanketing the airwaves tying Hassan to rising costs and assailing government spending.
The questions about GOP spending in New Hampshire loom amid reports that the NRSC has canceled advertising in key swing states as it burns through cash and faces a map filled with underperforming candidates. McConnell has lamented that “candidate quality” can affect whether Republicans take back the Senate. Since the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling and a few legislative wins for Biden, polling has shown the generic ballot improving for Democrats.
Abortion rights could be pivotal to Hassan’s chances. Democratic candidates statewide and outside groups plan to make it a major campaign issue. Ed Taylor, New Hampshire state director for the progressive activist group Rights & Democracy Project, said progressives were angered by Hassan taking a trip to the Southern border and siding with conservatives over border policy. But he said the GOP alternatives and potential for abortion restrictions or other erosion of rights by the conservative Supreme Court will motivate progressives to cast their qualms aside and vote for her.
“I think that’s going to be her turnout,” Taylor said. “It’s a really scary dystopian future we could be heading toward, and that honest fear is what’s propelling folks.”
But enthusiasm could also surge on the Republican side, where neither Trump nor Sununu has yet endorsed a candidate. A nod from either could instantly change the GOP race. And the future direction of food and energy prices could also tip the balance before Election Day.
“Look, Maggie’s done a great job in New Hampshire,” said Mike Cuzzi, a veteran New England Democratic operative. “A lot of this is going to turn on those broader national trends. . . . It’s going to be a real race.”
Tal Kopan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @talkopan.