New Hampshire has become a microcosm of the opioid epidemic—both on the ground, as the state’s drug-overdose fatality rate is especially high, and on the campaign trail, where dueling Senate candidates are scrambling to address the problem and take credit for trying to fix it.
The prescription painkiller and heroin epidemic has hit America on a national scale. Advocates on the ground and in Washington are mobilizing, and Congress is combatting it with legislation. Talk of the epidemic has seeped into campaigns at all levels—multiple presidential hopefuls spoke out in New Hampshire on the impact of addiction on their loved ones.
The topic has been particularly salient in tough Senate races, such as the contest between Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Gov. Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire, where nearly 45 percent of adults cite drug abuse as the state’s top problem.
Traditionally known for plaguing low-income, urban areas, this recent crisis has seen the drug spread to suburban and rural America. A high percentage of new users are white—as is 94 percent of New Hampshire’s population—and it’s one of five states with the highest rates of drug-overdose fatalities. From 2013 to 2014, the rate of overdose deaths increased 73.5 percent in the state, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So how much has Ayotte done from her Senate perch to combat the problem? Depends whom you ask.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has accused Ayotte of distorting her record on substance abuse; meanwhile, the conservative nonprofit One Nation launched a more-than-$1 million ad buy showcasing the Republican senator’s bipartisan work on it.
Ayotte’s proponents point to a lengthy list of actions: She was one of the original cosponsors of the Senate’s Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, a bipartisan bill that passed the upper chamber in a sweeping 94 to 1 vote. She was one of a handful of Republicans to support getting past a procedural hurdle to provide $600 million in emergency funding for the opioid epidemic, an amendment offered by her Democratic New Hampshire colleague. And Ayotte has introduced and sponsored several bills focused on prevention, education, treatment, and recovery.
“Kelly has been working with local stakeholders and members of both parties for the past few years on multiple proposals to address the opioid-abuse epidemic,” Ayotte campaign spokeswoman Liz Johnson wrote in an email. She added: “Our campaign will continue to highlight Kelly’s leadership in bringing people together to find solutions that will help save lives.”
The DSCC sent out a press release in January attacking Ayotte’s “reckless record,” saying she “supported the Ryan budget that threatened major cuts to substance-abuse programs, voted to repeal mandated coverage of substance-abuse treatment and to end Medicaid expansion in New Hampshire.”
“These are senators who have had an entire term to move on this issue,” DSCC spokeswoman Lauren Passalacqua told National Journal, “and it’s interesting that it took a couple months before November for them to act on something that’s been building for a really long time and when they haven’t necessarily taken every step they could have to either prevent the crisis or address the crisis, and I think that’s something voters will have to consider.”
The issue has also seeped into state politics, and that’s where Hassan comes in. She’s served as a Democratic governor for three years in a state where Republicans won control of the legislature in 2014. Her proponents note that Hassan pushed to pass and then reauthorize the state’s Medicaid expansion. She helped expand access to the opioid overdose-reversal drug. And she called for a special session to combat the epidemic, which resulted in the passage of two bipartisan bills.
But Ryan Williams, an advisor to the New Hampshire Republican Party, called the special session “essentially window dressing.” He added: “She does not have a good record on the issue. She was asleep at the switch [for] a number of months as the crisis spiraled out of control.”
Hassan caught flack in television and digital ads from a conservative-issue advocacy group, Citizens for a Strong New Hampshire. It accused Hassan of “holding new funding for drug prevention, treatment, and recovery hostage” a few months after the governor vetoed the Republican legislature’s budget. The ad received criticism from Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire; The Nashua Telegraph and; naturally, the New Hampshire Democratic Party, which called it “a baseless attack ad politicizing New Hampshire’s heroin epidemic.”
“Governor Hassan has been clear that the substance-abuse epidemic is the number one public health and safety challenge facing our state,” Hassan campaign spokesman Aaron Jacobs wrote in an email, “and she has taken a comprehensive approach to combating this crisis that includes supporting law enforcement while strengthening prevention, treatment, and recovery efforts.”
Attacking an opponent’s record on such a sensitive issue can be tricky, and could come with a backlash. Both candidates have been “sounding the alarm” on the opioid epidemic for years, an editorial from the Keene Sentinel said, and using it for political gain is “shameful.”