NASHUA — New Hampshire’s closely fought Senate race, a tossup battle that will help decide which political party controls the Senate next year, has rapidly become an echo chamber for Washington’s dysfunction-du-jour: the Supreme Court nominee standoff.
Grinding out weighty opinions as the chief judge of the US Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia, Merrick Garland was a virtual unknown to New Hampshire residents before President Obama tapped him March 16 to fill the high-court vacancy left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
New Hampshire Democrats — led by Governor Maggie Hassan, who is challenging Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte for her Senate seat — are working overtime to make sure the state’s voters know that Garland, who all sides agree is a moderate jurist, is being stonewalled by Ayotte and the rest of the Republican Senate majority.
New Hampshire has been treated to small-scale protests, Twitter rants, e-mail blasts, and newspaper editorials urging Ayotte to “do her job’’ and support confirmation hearings.
The talking points are identical to those in Washington, with some local garnishments.
“Her refusal to do her duty shows that she has failed a critical test for independence — and in New Hampshire we value our independence very strongly,” Hassan said in an interview. “People want their elected leaders to do their jobs.”
But Ayotte said that’s exactly what she’s doing. The Constitution requires the Senate give its “advice and consent” to the president’s court nominees, and Ayotte said in an interview that her advice is to hold off until after the November election. Because the new justice could tip the balance of the court, which is now evenly split 4-to-4 along ideological lines, the voters should first have their say, Ayotte said.
“I would like the people of [this] country to weigh in by electing a new president,” she said. Whom they elect, she said, determines “which direction you want the direction of this court to continue to go in.”
Ayotte’s only concession is she has agreed to meet with Garland, which is further than most of her Republican colleagues are willing to go.
Ayotte is among a handful of Republican senators up for reelection in the swing states that also include Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. In addition to the prospect of a Donald Trump nomination, which could drag down GOP candidates for Congress, Democrats say Republican intransigence will also be damaging.
Some political analysts say blocking Garland helps Ayotte and other incumbents fend off primary challenges from the far right. How much all this will matter to crucial independent voters, who help decide New Hampshire elections, is unclear.
It is an issue that works to rile up the base of both parties, said Andy Smith, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire. Antiestablishment Republicans and those “who are going to be less enthusiastic about Ayotte, she’s going to want to keep them close as possible,” Smith said. “Taking a position like this is probably going to help her with that group.”
(Already she has one primary opponent — former state senator Jim Rubens — who is criticizing her decision to meet with Garland, although he’s seen as something of a moderate Republican.)
The same dynamic is at play for Senator Rob Portman in Ohio, Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, and Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — all Republicans in swing states, said Jennifer Duffy, a political analysts for the Cook Political Report.
“This is basically a huge issue for the Republican base,” she said. “You have incumbents who are up, especially in states where filing is still open, who are worried about ticking off the right — or the base in general — and getting a challenge that isn’t helpful to them come November.”
Republicans are gambling that independents and other swing voters are not going to be moved by the Supreme Court fight.
Steve Duprey, a New Hampshire member of the Republican National Committee, contended that “the average American, the average New Hampshire person” is “more concerned about: Is our government keeping us safe in dealing with terrorism? The economy. Responding to the opioid crisis.”
The average voter might care if he or she is someone particularly tuned in to the effect Supreme Court decisions can have on everyday life, said Mark Vincent, chairman of the Hillsborough County Republicans.
“If you are, that might lead you to have a different opinion on it,” he said. Otherwise, he said, “I don’t see that it’s carrying through to the average voters.”
Democrats disagree, and recent national polls show that voters feel the Senate should hold hearings on Garland’s nomination. About 70 percent of Americans say the Senate should consider Garland now that the president has nominated him, according to a poll released Monday by Monmouth University.
The same poll said 77 percent of voters think Senate Republicans are “playing politics” by refusing to holding hearings on Garland’s nomination.
And this is the point that some New Hampshire Democrats are underscoring.
“People don’t get excited about Supreme Court nominations in the regular scheme of things, but the Republicans have made this into an issue on their own,” said Kathy Sullivan, a former New Hampshire Democratic Party chairwoman. “They created this mess. Now they have to live with it.”
Akilah Johnson can be reached at Akilah.Johnson@