AGAINST THE GRAIN

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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