Trump Hardly Registers In Critical Senate Race

In New Hampshire, Kelly Ayotte runs ahead of the presidential nominee, and Democrats turn their focus to her Senate record.

FILE - In this Sept. 13, 2016, file photo, incumbent Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., right, laughs with former Mayor Ray Wieczorek and patrons at the Puritan Backroom as she campaigns for re-election on primary day in Manchester, N.H. Ayotte won her primary and will face a challenge from Democrat Gov. Maggie Hassan in the November general election.
AP Photo/Elise Amendola
Sept. 25, 2016, 8 p.m.

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.

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