CONCORD, N.H. — Senate Democrats have a lot riding on the success of New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan. The two-term governor was their prized recruit of the cycle, boasting sterling approval ratings and a record of getting some liberal priorities (Medicaid expansion, formally recognizing same-sex marriage) passed by a GOP state legislature. As the battle for the Senate looks more competitive, the race between Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Hassan is shaping up to be the critical contest that determines which party controls the majority. Polls show them statistically tied, coming down to which candidate more effectively turns out her voters. To that end, more Democratic money (to the tune of $25.9 million) has poured into the New Hampshire race so far this year – a larger sum than any other contest in the country.
So it was striking to see Hassan, campaigning Thursday at a Concord retirement center, never utter the name of Donald Trump in her stump speech. You’d hardly even know he was on the ballot. Hassan’s speech tied Ayotte to the Koch brothers (whose allied groups aren’t spending anything in the race) and Big Pharma but never mentioned the GOP’s deeply unpopular presidential nominee. Instead, she’s running a conventional Democratic campaign, blasting the senator for supporting entitlement cuts, voting against funding of Planned Parenthood, and being a pawn of special interests.
“[Ayotte] has stood with her political party and her corporate special interest backers at the expense of New Hampshire seniors,” Hassan repeated several times, as the governor spoke to two dozen seniors at an event where she received an endorsement from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.
Asked about Trump’s role in the race in an interview with National Journal, Hassan talked around the topic. “What I focus on is in this race is how we continue to do the kind of work we’ve done in New Hampshire – work across party lines to strengthen our state. This race comes down to my record of standing up for the people of New Hampshire and her record of standing up with corporate special interests at their expense,” she said.
Even at a red meat rally for college students at the University of New Hampshire on Saturday, Hassan only mentioned Trump’s name twice in a 15-minute speech filled with attack lines against Ayotte. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, by contrast, led students in a chant blaming Ayotte for not confronting Trump when she followed the governor to the stage.
And while Ayotte has struggled to calibrate her support for her party’s polarizing presidential nominee – she says she supports him but won’t endorse him – Democrats have only lightly touched on the pair’s relationship in paid messaging in recent weeks. When Hassan brings up Trump, it’s usually to present him as a national security threat, using him to question Ayotte’s credibility on foreign affairs. (“Ayotte has put politics over the safety and security of our nation with her support for Donald Trump as commander-in chief,” she said at Saturday’s rally.) There’s also an ad airing that compares Ayotte to Trump on Planned Parenthood funding, though it’s paid for by the political committee for Planned Parenthood and EMILY’s List.
Democrats acknowledge that tying Ayotte to Trump isn’t as effective as targeting her conservative votes in Congress. After a barrage of negative attacks, only 38 percent of voters said they disapproved of Ayotte’s performance as senator in the new Monmouth poll — with just 32 percent viewing her personally unfavorably. Indeed, the latest Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ad airing statewide focuses on Ayotte’s opposition to importing prescription drugs from Canada — the type of ad you’d see in any other election year.
“Certain messaging works better in certain states. Here in New Hampshire, we’re confident we don’t have to do any of that,” said New Hampshire Democratic party chairman Ray Buckley. “Everybody already knows that Republicans have embraced Trump’s nonsense. When you only have a moment to talk to voters, it’s more effective to remind them… Kelly Ayotte voted six times to defund Planned Parenthood.”
Hassan’s back-to-basics messaging is part of an emerging national Democratic strategy, a concession that Trump’s own deep-seated problems aren’t as likely to drag down his party’s down-ballot mates. A new Monmouth poll, released this week, shows Ayotte leading Hassan by two points even though Trump trails Hillary Clinton by nine in the state. That significant gap between Trump and GOP Senate candidates is matched in Ohio and Florida, where Sens. Rob Portman and Marco Rubio now are favorites to win second terms. Because of this dynamic, the New York Times Senate prediction model now gives Republicans better than even odds to maintain their slim majority – with the GOP favored in the Granite State.
It’s a sign that the Clinton strategy to disconnect Trump from the Republican Party – as illustrated in leaked Democratic National Committee e-mails – could end up being problematic for her Congressional allies. With Clinton leading the messaging that Trump is abnormal even as other Republicans are mainstream, it deprives Democratic candidates of a potentially potent line of attack. A concerted attempt to exploit Ayotte’s unwillingness to repudiate a nominee with a record of misogynistic, racially-insensitive comments was downscaled in favor of attacks that focused on her votes on entitlements.
For her part, Ayotte is working to translate her down-to-earth likability into political Teflon to inoculate herself from anti-Trump sentiments. She didn’t hold any traditional campaign events the week I arrived, but met with constituents in a more informal manner. She runs nearly every weekend in a local 5K — this Saturday, she clocked 28 minutes in her hometown of Nashua, where she chatted with dozens of well-wishers. On Sunday, she schmoozed at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where she was greeted frequently by a GOP-friendly audience attending the Sprint Cup NASCAR race.
“This race is always going to be about New Hampshire foremost. People understand national politics, but they also understand state politics. So I really feel like this race is going to focus on New Hampshire,” Ayotte told National Journal in the racetrack’s media room, downplaying the national stakes of the contest. “Here’s the irony about my representation of New Hampshire: I have Mike Bloomberg attacking me for standing up to the Constitutional rights of people in New Hampshire and I have the Koch brothers not getting in this race for standing up for the environment in New Hampshire. So I am truly the independent voice New Hampshire expects.”
As we raced away from the infield in a golf cart, Ayotte turned around to me and said: “I mean, I’ve disagreed with my party’s nominee. When has she [Hassan] done that?” (Hassan, for her part, has also cast herself as an independent voice, and cited her opposition to closing Guantanamo Bay and opposition to an Internet sales tax as areas in which she differs from Hillary Clinton.)
All told, Ayotte’s low-key retail politicking has paid off, allowing her to avoid many of the contentious encounters frequently seen at New Hampshire town halls. One exception: As she was leaving the track, she was greeted by a middle-aged man who gave her an earful about how extreme the GOP has become under Trump. “But the answer is not to elect Democrats like Hillary Clinton or Maggie Hassan,” Ayotte responded. She looked eager to move on, assuming that the voter was a lost cause.
But the man surprised her with his response: “I get it. And I really like you and wish you the best. And I’ll be working for you.” He’s exactly the type of voter she needs to win a second term.