Drivers entering Keene, N.H., see two large wooden signs on a big lawn. One is a blue “Donald Trump for President” sign. The other is a white “Kelly Ayotte for US Senate” sign — newly covered with a large, red spray-painted X.
It has been a week since Ayotte disavowed the Republican presidential nominee after a leaked videotape showed him making crude comments about women. In the days since, Trump hasn’t once mentioned Ayotte. And Ayotte, a Republican in a tough race for reelection, would prefer not to talk about Trump.
Two new polls show Ayotte continues to be tied with her challenger, Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan, a sign that voters might be angry but are not abandoning her in bulk as the incumbent tries to navigate the uneven terrain created by Trump’s candidacy.
“I have heard from disgruntled people a lot this week who were upset that Ayotte left Trump,” said Cheshire County Republican chairwoman Kate Day. “Are they mad at her? Yes, but they are still going to vote for her.”
Democrats, meanwhile, are still working to tie Ayotte and Trump together. With Trump coming to the state Saturday, Hassan’s campaign announced it was making a new television ad about Ayotte’s relationship with Trump called “Political Calculation” and putting $1 million behind it. “What’s right for Kelly Ayotte is wrong for New Hampshire,” the ad says, as viewers see a photograph of Ayotte alongside a clip of the controversial Trump video.
So far, the two new polls suggest that Ayotte hasn’t been punished by Republican voters for leaving Trump, nor has she been rewarded by independents and Democrats. In a WBUR/MassINC poll two weeks ago, Ayotte received the support of 84 percent of Trump voters. On Friday, the same poll showed that Ayotte had 82 percent, a two-point drop well within the margin of error.
Further, among Republican men, Trump’s best demographic, Ayotte’s favorability rating actually went up from 68 percent two weeks ago to 73 percent this week.
And among the independent voters she needs to reach in order to beat Hassan, Ayotte’s favorability before and after dumping Trump was unchanged. Democrats didn’t give her any credit for the move — in fact, they liked her slightly less than before.
“The Ayotte campaign spent an enormous amount of time and emotional energy trying to figure out how to extricate her herself from Trump but not his supporters,” said Scott Spradling, the former political director at WMUR-TV in Manchester. “It turns out, it wasn’t that big of a deal after all.”
That dynamic could perhaps change Saturday when Trump holds a noontime rally in Portsmouth. It will be his fourth trip to the state in four weeks but his first since Ayotte has left him. Whether he criticizes Ayotte or urges his supporters to reject her campaign remains to be seen. Trump aides say they have no idea what he will say while in the state.
It is probably in his political interest not to attack Ayotte. New Hampshire voters have a vastly more favorable opinion of her than of Trump, and she runs roughly six points ahead of Trump in their respective races. The dynamic in New Hampshire is the same as in other Senate battleground states like Ohio, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Florida where the Republican nominees are polling better than Trump.
Needless to say, Ayotte won’t be at the Trump rally. She plans to be 20 miles up the road, running in a 5K race in Rochester, N.H., in support of the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, established in the name of the local journalist kidnapped and killed by the Islamic State in northwestern Syria.
The Trump-Ayotte relationship has long been complicated. For months, Ayotte’s official position was that she wasn’t endorsing Trump but would support him by voting for him. Several times, however, she released statements denouncing specific controversial comments from Trump.
Last summer, Trump excoriated Ayotte for keeping her distance — only to endorse her days later.
In a recent televised debate with Hassan, Ayotte characterized Trump as a role model for children — and then quickly retracted the statement. Neither Trump nor Democrat Hillary Clinton are proper role models, she said.
Then, last weekend, Ayotte cut her ties to Trump altogether, saying she could not abide his vulgar comments about women. “I’m a mom and an American first, and I cannot and will not support a candidate for president who brags about degrading and assaulting women,” she said.
Ayotte’s new stance is in contrast to the state’s other Republican nominees for major office. US Representative Frank Guinta and gubernatorial candidate Chris Sununu are still backing Trump. And it’s clear that her decision hasn’t made the issue go away.
On Friday morning, the topic was the first question at a radio debate between Ayotte and Hassan.
“I will stand up to anyone in the Oval Office if I don’t think they are doing the right things for New Hampshire,” Ayotte said on WGIR-AM in Manchester. “I think this is a very big difference in this race. I would ask your listeners to consider whether Governor Hassan would ever stand up to Hillary Clinton strongly on anything of significance.”
Hassan shot back, “Senator Ayotte until last Saturday was willing to put Donald Trump in the Situation Room with access to nuclear codes. And he is the same person on Saturday as he was on Friday as he was the previous day. And that shows a very concerning lack of judgment.”
Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, said he doubts Ayotte “can entirely divorce herself from Trump.”
“The true test will be whether independent voters who are paying less attention to the race will see Ayotte as being a Republican like Trump or something different,” Scala said.
James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.