A Rumble in the Granite State

Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan is vying for Republican Kelly Ayotte's seat in the U.S. Senate. It’s the most-watched race of 2016 (well, with maybe one exception).

So far, Ayotte has had the tougher task. New Hampshire voters tend to lean blue in presidential elections, and they’ve consistently shown a strong dislike for Trump in the polls. When Trump first appeared to secure the Republican nomination, her campaign quickly confirmed that the senator would “support” Trump, but insisted that she would not “endorse” him. The linguistic parsing rightfully earned both local and national mockery. In early June, when Trump questioned a judge’s integrity because of his Mexican heritage, Ayotte was mum at first but eventually told the Washington Post that the comments were “offensive and wrong.”

Hassan has not hidden from Clinton in the same way, despite Clinton’s unpopularity among New Hampshire voters. But Hassan is keen to draw a straight line between her opponent and Trump as often as possible. During a 20-minute phone call, Hassan lumped Ayotte in with the Senate Republican leadership (referenced four times in our interview) and “special interests” (seven times). And her campaign never misses a chance to juxtapose the names “Ayotte” and “Trump.” As Ayotte filed her official paperwork to run for reelection, Hassan supporters stood outside holding up giant cardboard Trump heads.

Meanwhile, Ayotte, who told me she is “independent” (four times) and works “across the aisle” (three times), is playing the same game by suggesting that Hassan is in lockstep with Clinton and the Democrats: “When has she ever really challenged any difficult issues in her party?” Ayotte says to me. “I’m not hesitant to take on my party or the other side. I don’t see that same level of independence from her.”

Hassan and Ayotte are both popular and well known in New Hampshire, so voters’ opinions of them are unlikely to change much as the election nears. So with the polls showing a neck-and-neck race, an enormous amount of outside effort and money is heading north to try to persuade the tiny number of people who will decide the outcome.


Massachusetts’ network of active Democrats isn’t just sitting around and watching. They seldom do. “You always see a lot of people with ties to Massachusetts coming up to help out,” says Kathy Sullivan, former New Hampshire Democratic Party chair. That was certainly true in the 2014 U.S. Senate race, she says, when Marty Walsh, Deval Patrick, Niki Tsongas, and others were eager to join the fight against former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, who was challenging incumbent Democrat Jeanne Shaheen.

This will certainly be the case again. Senator Elizabeth Warren, who wants desperately to win New Hampshire to build a Democratic majority in her chamber, will be among those making sure of it. “There is untapped energy—there are an awful lot of people in Massachusetts” who don’t have a local competitive race this year, Warren told me. “We want to direct them to the state next door.”

More than $30 million had been spent on the race through April, and things hadn’t even really heated up; that figure will easily shoot past the seemingly incomprehensible $55 million spent two years ago when Shaheen defeated Brown. The two national major-party Senate committees, which together spent $2.8 million on the Brown-Shaheen race, have already reserved about five times that amount of ad time for this coming fall—which means we should all prepare for a serious assault on our TV screens. Another committee, Senate Majority PAC, made a $4.2 million ad buy to support Hassan. In May, the pro-business U.S. Chamber of Commerce made its biggest single ad buy anywhere in the country this year, spending $1.5 million to attack Hassan. Five days later, the advocacy group Americans for Responsible Solutions PAC announced a media campaign that would spend almost as much to attack Ayotte on gun control. And this was four months before the primary.

“Maggie’s race will be followed very closely” in Massachusetts, says Barbara Lee, whose eponymous foundation in Cambridge boosts women running for office across the country. Lee has a campaign button on her wall from Hassan’s first successful state Senate campaign and has already helped raise money for this year’s run. As have Warren, state Treasurer Deb Goldberg, and plenty of others. Cambridge and Concord have consistently been among Hassan’s top 10 ZIP codes for campaign contributions. The pace has picked up so much that New Hampshire Republicans started accusing Hassan of neglecting her gubernatorial duties by spending so much time fundraising in Massachusetts.

Ayotte, too, has dipped into Massachusetts coffers for a good chunk of her funds. Contributors include many of the biggest names in Bay State Republican politics, including Kerry Healey, Richard Tisei, past party chairs Jennifer Nassour and Robert Maginn, and, oddly enough, Libertarian vice presidential nominee Bill Weld. Among the business and finance elite, donors include executives from Raytheon and Fidelity, developer Arthur Winn, philanthropist Ted Cutler, and Boston Beer Company’s Jim Koch, along with the old Mitt Romney network of Spencer Zwick, Ronald Kaufman, and Beth Myers.

Ayotte is especially in need of backing from Massachusetts’ more moderate Republican donors, given her criticism of Trump and her tendency to buck conservative orthodoxy, which has cost her relationships with hardline conservative funders and untold millions in political cash. Last October, for instance, Ayotte came out in support of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan with the EPA, causing Democrats to smile and Republicans to resuscitate calls for a conservative primary challenger. She also voted for the LGBT antidiscrimination bill ENDA and supported a compromise immigration reform effort. As a result, conservative groups have lowered Ayotte’s rating—the Club for Growth grades her among the least conservative Republican senators, while Heritage Action for America says she votes with them less than 50 percent of the time overall, and a shockingly liberal 26 percent this session.

Ayotte has even managed to piss off the infamous Koch brothers, particularly over the EPA issue, and they appear to be shutting her out of their 2016 spending plans. Americans for Prosperity, which they prop up, has suggested it will not spend directly to support Ayotte. Along with their Freedom Partners Action Fund, the Kochs are reportedly set to spend $42 million on Senate race ads just this summer—but none of that money is slated to go to New Hampshire.

The Koch brothers are a clear example of how difficult it is for Ayotte to run her own race in this moderate state. The Kochs may despise Trump, as do most New Hampshire voters, but Ayotte is in a tight bind: The only way to win is to assert her independence and go against many of Trump’s wilder pronouncements, but it’s also a sure-fire way to push other crucial Republican funders away.

In the thick of the controversy over Trump’s criticism of a Mexican-American judge, during a closed-door lunch meeting of Republican senators, Ayotte reportedly begged Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, who supports Trump, to get the candidate to cut the crap. To many, the scene was reminiscent of one three years ago, when Ayotte confronted Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz over his leading role in the government shutdown. She was successfully able to leverage her opposition to Cruz into a show of independence that played very well with voters back home—an opportunity Trump might still offer her now. “I was the one who really challenged, directly in my conference, Senator Cruz,” Ayotte said. “So I will do the same with whoever is in the White House on either side of the aisle.”

Hassan might consider something similar with her party’s nominee; Super PAC ads running in the state are already tarring Clinton as a serial liar, and the attacks are sure to get uglier in the months ahead. Hassan will continually be asked to respond to those charges, just as Ayotte will relentlessly face questions about Trump. As they vie for what’s shaping up to be the most important Senate seat in the country, running from national partisan politics might be the one truly bipartisan objective the two of them share.