Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s body was barely cold when Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, looking like an angry old snapping turtle, stood in front of a bank of television cameras on Capitol Hill and drew a political battle line unprecedented in living memory.
Because Republicans controlled the Senate, McConnell declared roughly an hour after Scalia died, the party could and would categorically reject anyone Democratic President Barack Obama nominated as Scalia’s successor. He swore that the ninth seat on the nation’s highest court—frequently the tiebreaking vote on the most controversial issues of the day—would remain empty for a year awaiting the results of the current presidential circus.
Whether intentional or not, McConnell’s remarkable pronouncement also shone a spotlight on 2016’s undercard fight for control of the U.S. Senate. Sure, the presidential campaign gets top billing. But the party that controls the Senate, everybody was suddenly reminded, can act as either an enabler of or bulwark against the president’s plans: legislation, treaties, and, yes, judicial nominations that will shape our nation’s laws on issues such as abortion, campaign finance, and energy policy for years to come.
That is particularly crucial given that our next president will be, according to polls, one of the two most disliked and distrusted nominees ever put forward by a major political party. If you loathe Hillary Clinton, you desperately want the Senate to stay in Republican hands in case she wins; if you detest Donald Trump, you just as eagerly want Democrats to gain control and stop him.
This brings us to the friendly little state of New Hampshire, where Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan is challenging Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte. There, unlike the lesser-of-two-evils presidential race, voters have the pleasure of choosing between two well-liked, smart, effective public servants in a race that, especially since the Scalia earthquake, has turned into a white-knuckle fight for control of the upper house.
Democrats need to gain five seats to ensure a majority in the Senate. Their most likely gains, experts on all sides agree, are in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Florida. The next two possibilities, the states that will decide whether it’s Trump or Clinton who gets to choose the crucial ninth Supreme Court justice, are Ohio and New Hampshire.
The Senate races in both states are in a dead heat, and political experts predict the Ayotte-Hassan showdown will stay that way. “I don’t expect [the race] to leave the margin of error” in polls, says Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report.
Everybody in politics knows that a mere few thousand votes in the Granite State—maybe a few hundred, or even a dozen—could profoundly change the course of American society. So tens of millions of dollars are flowing in—much of it from Massachusetts or raised by Bay State power brokers including Elizabeth Warren—to target the 750,000 or so voters expected to cast ballots in November. Already a marquee matchup expected to break records for outside spending, the race has exploded into a nuclear political showdown as attack ads from special interest groups drown out the candidates’ own messages and records. In a political season dominated by two widely disliked presidential candidates, New Hampshire’s Senate contest is rapidly getting dragged down by national forces beyond anyone’s control—forcing Hassan and Ayotte to define themselves not by who they are and what they stand for, but by the political distance they can keep from the next president of the United States.
Hassan has found plenty of reasons to visit Boston of late. In April she attended at least four private fundraisers and also delivered UMass Boston’s annual Robert C. Wood Lecture of Public and Urban Affairs. Though largely forgotten today, Wood was a major Boston figure. A leading urbanist at MIT, he spent four years helping President Lyndon Johnson launch the Department of Housing and Urban Development, served as superintendent of Boston Public Schools under Mayor Kevin White, and seriously considered running for governor and senator. He was also Maggie Hassan’s father.
Born in Boston and raised in Lincoln, Hassan attended Brown University when her father was running the Boston schools. She graduated from Northeastern University School of Law in the early 1980s while her parents were living in the South End. “Her father set an example of public service, and both of us thought it was very important to do things that are good for the community,” says Margaret Wood, Hassan’s mother, who now lives in Cambridge. “That’s what we expected in life, and she grew up expecting that.”
Despite her high-profile father, Hassan is hardly the elitist some Republicans try to paint her as. Her father grew up in Florida and was never wealthy. Hassan went to public schools in Lincoln and also in Washington, DC, where her father worked with President Johnson while the city was dealing with desegregation. Later in life, she married a teacher who worked his way up to become principal of the tony Phillips Exeter Academy, and had two children, Meg, 23, and Ben, 27, who suffers from cerebral palsy. Ben now appears with his mother in campaign commercials; she cites his disorder as one of the reasons she got into politics.
When it comes to Ayotte, her common-woman touch is a real part of her appeal; she lives humbly in Washington and returns to New Hampshire on most weekends. “I’ve had to drop her off to get a gallon of milk on the way home from DC,” says Simon Thomson, a former Ayotte staffer. “She hasn’t lost touch.”
Born and raised in Nashua, Ayotte went out of state for college and law school but returned to forge a career in public and private law. She married a pilot in the Air National Guard who flew combat missions in Iraq, and eventually worked her way up to state attorney general, an appointed office in New Hampshire, in 2004—the same year Hassan won her first election to the state Senate. Six years later, Ayotte ran for office for the first time and became a U.S. senator. She rapidly earned her stripes on Capitol Hill and became a frequent guest on the Sunday network talk shows—in part because of her abilities, in part because she’s a rare Republican female officeholder, and in part because of New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary.
Because of her prominence within the Republican Party, it’s easy to forget how new Ayotte is to the political game. In the middle of our phone conversation, Ayotte suddenly, and quite self-deprecatingly, cut me off to apologize for not agreeing to an interview for my 2014 feature about her in this magazine. “Bear in mind, I was attorney general, but this is my first elected office,” she said, explaining why her staff had shielded her from me back then. “Your first term in elected office, you learn a lot.”
It’s hardly what you expect to hear from someone who was on everybody’s short list for Republican vice president in 2012.
Hassan sometimes displays a similarly endearing attitude behind her political façade. Talking about Ben, or about her father as she did at UMass, she occasionally drops her rather robotic campaign rhetoric (comparisons to Martha Coakley are unfortunate but not inaccurate) and becomes the warm, relatable person that people who know her say she is.
Nevertheless, neither candidate is an oratorical wonder, to put it mildly. They are not flashy, in dress or demeanor. They are both professional, both lawyerly: hardworking, careful, thorough, and thoughtful. And now, facing each other from atop the state’s political pyramid, they are forced to all but abandon their natural tendencies and distance themselves from their unpopular parties and presidential candidates.
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.
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