scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Kelly Ayotte’s foe isn’t just Maggie Hassan. It’s also history

Senator Kelly Ayotte greeted New Hampshire voters last week. She is in a close battle with Democrat Maggie Hassan.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

NASHUA — Which party will control the Senate — and with it the power to confirm as many as three Supreme Court nominees, and decide when the country can go to war — may come down to Senator Kelly Ayotte’s ability to convince New Hampshire voters that she is a different kind of Republican.

New Hampshire has become a predictable swing state in the last two decades, favoring Democrats in presidential election years, and Republicans in midterm elections.

Ayotte must break out of that historical pattern if she is to win reelection to the Senate on Nov. 8. That means beating Maggie Hassan, the Democratic governor, in a race that surveys call a statistical tie.


Ayotte’s task is made even more difficult by the other Republicans on the ballot. Donald Trump, the GOP presidential nominee, has not led a single New Hampshire poll since the general election began. She will also be running alongside two Republican candidates for Congress who are expected to lose badly.

In order to win, political analysts say, Ayotte will have to distance herself from those Republicans, especially Trump, by creating her own GOP brand with a robust get-out-the-vote operation to carry her candidacy.

“She has to both be the flagship reason that Republicans vote this year, and appeal to independent voters at the same time,” said Jim Merrill, a veteran Republican strategist in New Hampshire.

The stakes are high: Some analysts say Democrats are positioned to win the Senate majority this year — especially if they defeat Ayotte. It’s one of the reasons the New Hampshire Senate race is expected to be the most expensive in state history.

Throughout much of this year, Ayotte has tried to brand herself as the Republican who lives next door. She plays basketball with her daughter or swings a bat on the softball field in her political advertisements. She campaigns in a green Red Sox cap.


On the trail, she says she believes climate change is at least partly man-made. She talks about how she’s worked in a bipartisan matter to tackle the state’s opioid crisis. She rarely mentions her party affiliation — or Trump.

Ayotte has said she will vote for Trump, but she is not endorsing him, and the last time they are known to have spoken privately in person was in early 2015 — before he became a presidential candidate.

Ayotte has an even more complicated relationship with the state’s only other Republican member of Congress, Representative Frank Guinta. After a campaign finance scandal, Ayotte has repeatedly called for Guinta to resign. Also not helpful to her prospects: Guinta trails his opponent by 19 points in the most recent poll.

Despite this, polls show Ayotte still in the fight.

“These are two candidates who are running every day with the same stride and neither one has found a way to pull ahead,” said Neil Levesque, the executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College.

Former representative Charlie Bass knows the state’s split political personalities well. The Republican first won in 1994, a good year for Republicans nationally.

He most recently lost reelection in 2012 — the same year President Obama won the state with a five-point margin.

“Kelly is in much better position for reelection than I ever was, at least at the end of my career in Congress,” Bass said. “How do you topple a US senator who has been there for six years, who people like, done a good job, cemented a relationship with the state and there is no particular reason to throw her out?”


Hassan, currently the governor, is vying to unseat Ayotte. Jim Cole/Associated Press

Bass points to Ayotte’s approval rating, which a Morning Consult poll put at 54 percent — in the top half of all senators in the nationwide online survey.

But Hassan is also popular and has maintained an approval rating over 50 percent throughout her time as governor.

While New Hampshire Republicans argue that Hassan has yet to find a reason for voters to fire Ayotte, Democrats say all they need to do is to show voters they have a choice — and hope history stays the course for the party.

“In elections you don’t have to convince people to dislike your opponent. All you have to do is to convince them to not vote for them,” said Joe Grandmaison, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. “And I think Hassan is giving many reasons for voters not to choose Ayotte.”

But if the presidential race is close and the Senate race remains within the margin of error, the tiebreaker may have less to do with branding — and more to do with the operations of each campaign.

In that respect too, Ayotte will be forging her own path.

Hassan’s campaign is part of a coordinated Democratic party operation fueled by hundreds of staffers and thousands of volunteers — and their efforts benefit not only Hillary Clinton but Hassan as well.


In past elections, Republicans have implemented a similar model for the party’s nominees. But Trump has not invested in much of a ground game this year in New Hampshire, leaving the get-out-the-vote efforts to roughly 50 staffers from the Republican National Committee.

Merrill, who oversaw Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign in New Hampshire, conceded that Democrats have a much stronger field operation in 2016 than Republicans do.

“What Republicans have right now is nothing like what we had four years ago with Mitt,” Merrill said. “However Ayotte, on her own, has built her own field operation and her own brand.”

Ayotte, shown speaking to a voter in August at an event in Loudon, N.H., is trying to fight history in her pursuit of a second term.Jim Cole/Associated Press/File

James Pindell can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JamesPindell.Click here to subscribe to his daily e-mail update on the 2016 campaign.