New Hampshire’s Senate race — a high-stakes contest between two of the state’s most prominent female politicians — has already become ground zero in the national fight over women’s issues.
The race is less than three weeks old, but already Senator Kelly Ayotte, a Republican, and Governor Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, as well as several outside interest groups and super PACs, are quickly trying to define these issues for voters in their own terms.
When a Karl Rove-backed super PAC went up with more than $1 million in flattering television ads about Ayotte’s record on women , the local Planned Parenthood’s political arm responded. After EMILY’s List, a national organization that supports female Democrats who back abortion rights, announced it would be heavily involved in the contest, Ayotte released her first three Web videos titled, “Our Daughters,” “Workplace Fairness,” and “Strong Families.”
The Senate race is on track to be one of the most competitive in the country in 2016. Democrats must win this seat in order to net the handful they need to secure control of the Senate. On Wednesday, a Public Policy Polling survey found the race to be a statistical tie, with Hassan at 44 percent and Ayotte at 43 percent.
In recent years, Democrats have focused their national campaigns on galvanizing female voters, accusing Republicans of waging a “war on women.” But the party’s playbook has never worked against a female incumbent in the Senate — at least not yet.
“The ways the two campaigns are interpreting these women’s issues are different,” said Daniel Schlozman, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. “Ayotte has clearly seen the polling on abortion and is trying to reframe what it means to be pro-woman. Everyone is pro-woman like everyone is pro-economy, but the answers on how to go about it, are very, very different. That is what makes this particular race among two popular women so interesting.”
In the run-up to her reelection campaign, Ayotte worked with a bipartisan group of senators to address sexual assault on college campuses. She introduced a bill that would increase access to birth control over the counter. She said she wants employers to provide accommodating workplaces for pregnant women and flexible schedules for new mothers.
“Kelly’s long record of supporting women and families is clear,” said Ayotte spokeswoman Chloe Rockow.
Democrats, meanwhile, called into question the seriousness of Ayotte’s legislative efforts. New Hampshire Democratic National Committeewoman Kathy Sullivan described them as “a sham.”
EMILY’s List targets Ayotte’s voting record, including opposing an equal pay bill and supporting an amendment that allow let privately held companies opt out of mandated contraception benefits in health insurance plans based on a moral or religious objection.
“Democrats are emboldened to use so-called women’s issues on the campaign trail, especially on choice,” said Nathan Gonzales, the editor & publisher of The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, a nonpartisan political newsletter. “It is clear that they aren’t going to give Ayotte a pass just because she is a woman.”
And if there’s one issue that each campaign plans to use against the other, it’s government funding for Planned Parenthood. Ayotte has voted three times to not have any government funds go to Planned Parenthood. She’s also called out the women’s health organization following videos surreptitiously recorded by an antiabortion group this year that showed Planned Parenthood staff talking about tissue research conducted on aborted fetuses.
Meanwhile Hassan, as governor, defended Planned Parenthood in a state-level effort to defund it. She ultimately lost that battle.
“I think this race will push the dialogue beyond these issues, but there is no doubt that on Planned Parenthood, there is a line in the sand,” said Kelly Dittmar, a Rutgers University political science scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics. “They both bring a woman’s perspective on women’s issues, but there isn’t a monolithic position on them. This race will push us to think beyond the box about what it means to be a women candidate, and that it is a bit more nuanced.”
Dittmar’s research shows that this is only the 10th time two women have squared off for the Senate. None of those races featured a sitting governor versus an incumbent. So far, there are 11 other women running for the Senate in 2016.
But while women’s issues are at the forefront of this race, that may not always be the case.
“At the end of the day, this race will be about the bread-and-butter issues like the heroin epidemic in the state, the economy, and foreign policy,” said New Hampshire-based Republican strategist Dave Carney, who is overseeing the super PAC Ending Spending’s work on the race in support of Ayotte.
What’s more, staffers working for both candidates generally agree on one thing: Their race does not exist in a vacuum. The winner will undoubtedly be affected by the presidential contest on top of the ballot, as well as a now open gubernatorial race and a competitive race in one House district.
In fact, how much attention voters pay to women’s issues could depend on the party’s presidential nominees, especially if Hillary Clinton tops the Democrats’ national ticket.
Plus, Hassan and Ayotte will want to discuss other issues they believe are in their wheelhouse. Hassan will want to talk about being bipartisan and balanced budgets. Ayotte will want to talk about foreign policy issues, like the Iran nuclear deal.
It is also possible that primary challengers could emerge in either party. Ayotte has had a rough relationship with the Republican grass roots since her office successfully organized a coup against then New Hampshire Republican Party chairman Jack Kimball, a Tea Party leader, four years ago.
Kimball said Ayotte will face a primary challenger who is more conservative “and with the ability to win.” But Kimball said he wasn’t comfortable giving a name — or even the gender of the candidate.
James Pindell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell, or subscribe to his daily e-mail update on the 2016 campaign at bostonglobe.com/groundgame.