Can the Top of the Ticket Come Through for Senate Democrats?

New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan and other top-tier Senate contenders give Democrats a formidable lineup to try and take back the chamber. But much will depend on how Democrats’ presidential nominee fares.

New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan (right) campaigned with Hillary Clinton in 2014.
Darren McCollester AFP/Getty
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
Oct. 5, 2015, 8 p.m.

New Hamp­shire Gov. Mag­gie Has­san on Monday put a flour­ish on a ban­ner 2015 for Sen­ate Demo­crats. From Wis­con­sin to Ohio to Illinois to, now, New Hamp­shire, the party has done al­most everything right, en­ti­cing can­did­ates with pop­ular­ity or ex­per­i­ence (or of­ten both) to run for Sen­ate in swing states across the coun­try.

Now comes the hard part.

Hil­lary Clin­ton’s sink­ing poll num­bers have com­plic­ated the Sen­ate Demo­crats’ path back to a ma­jor­ity. For all their suc­cess land­ing ma­jor can­did­ates, their cam­paigns—like all down-bal­lot ef­forts in 2016—could largely re­flect the out­come of the pres­id­en­tial race. And des­pite the boost can­did­ates like Has­san could give, Demo­crats might have less reas­on to be op­tim­ist­ic about Sen­ate races like New Hamp­shire’s than they did earli­er this year after Clin­ton’s rocky sum­mer.

In some cases, Demo­crats might face the daunt­ing task of over­com­ing—rather than be­ne­fit­ing from—Clin­ton’s pres­ence.

“Six months ago, Hil­lary Clin­ton looked like she was go­ing to be a dom­in­ant nom­in­ee for Demo­crats,” said Ry­an Wil­li­ams, a Re­pub­lic­an strategist with ex­tens­ive New Hamp­shire ex­per­i­ence. “Now she’s in­cred­ibly dam­aged. Her ap­prov­al rat­ings are tank­ing, and she’s look­ing like a po­ten­tial an­chor around necks of Sen­ate Demo­crats.”

Demo­crats counter that, more than a year be­fore the gen­er­al elec­tion, rat­ing Clin­ton as a weak can­did­ate is pre­ma­ture (just as it might be early to sug­gest, amid Sen. Bernie Sanders’s rising sup­port and Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden’s pos­sible en­trance, that Clin­ton wins the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion in the first place). The for­tunes of a pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate fluc­tu­ate from week to week, much less over the course of a year.

But there’s little doubt that Clin­ton, who Demo­crats once coun­ted on to be an elect­or­al jug­ger­naut, is any­thing but that right now. In one New Hamp­shire sur­vey, she fell be­hind her pos­sible Re­pub­lic­an foes with the ex­cep­tion of Don­ald Trump. In Iowa polling, she trailed even the ego­ma­ni­ac­al bil­lion­aire many Re­pub­lic­an polit­ic­al op­er­at­ives con­sider gen­er­al-elec­tion krypton­ite. In both states, many more re­spond­ents viewed her un­fa­vor­ably than fa­vor­ably.

That’s dan­ger­ous ground for Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate re­cruits, in­clud­ing Has­san. Sen­ate races and their pres­id­en­tial coun­ter­parts have be­come in­creas­ingly in­ter­twined as the coun­try’s elect­or­ate grows more po­lar­ized. Bar­ring ex­treme cases—like a Todd Akin-like gaffe or nonex­ist­ent fun­drais­ing—a can­did­ate is rarely able to out­run his or her party’s pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee by more than a hand­ful of per­cent­age points.

That nar­row op­por­tun­ity to over-per­form the top of the tick­et ex­plains why Demo­crats were so eager to re­cruit the two-term New Hamp­shire gov­ernor.

Demo­crats con­sidered Has­san their white whale of 2016 re­cruit­ment: a well-liked, ex­per­i­enced chief ex­ec­ut­ive with the fun­drais­ing chops to chal­lenge en­trenched Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Kelly Ayotte. Pop­u­lar with the party’s lib­er­al and es­tab­lish­ment wings, her en­trance ef­fect­ively clears the primary field and sets up an im­me­di­ate show­down with Ayotte. Has­san star­ted the year with ap­prov­al rat­ings around 70 per­cent; even after fight­ing with le­gis­lat­ive Re­pub­lic­ans and be­ing tar­geted by mil­lions of dol­lars in early GOP at­tack ads, her rat­ings stood at a healthy 51 per­cent in a re­cent NBC News/Mar­ist poll.

To many Demo­crats, ahead of an ex­pec­ted close pres­id­en­tial race in the Gran­ite State, Has­san rep­res­en­ted the party’s best—and maybe only—hope of vic­tory against Ayotte, who has proven pop­u­lar her­self.

“[Has­san] doesn’t have a steep as a learn­ing curve as many can­did­ates who enter Sen­ate races,” said Matt Canter, a strategist and former deputy ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee. “… Her team is a very ex­per­i­enced New Hamp­shire team. She will be well-served by them. Demo­crats need all of that to beat a skilled politi­cian like Kelly Ayotte.”

Yet the top of the tick­et has a power­ful pull. In each of 2008 and 2012, only one Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate can­did­ate won a state that Pres­id­ent Obama also car­ried (Nevada in 2012 and Maine in 2008). The link between Sen­ate cam­paigns and the pres­id­en­tial race will be es­pe­cially strong in 2016, when many of the mar­quee Sen­ate con­tests—Flor­ida, Pennsylvania, Wis­con­sin, New Hamp­shire, and Ohio—double as pres­id­en­tial battle­grounds.

“[There’s] no ques­tion that pres­id­en­tial polit­ics af­fect Sen­ate races dur­ing pres­id­en­tial years,” Wil­li­ams said. “The pres­id­en­tial race dom­in­ates everything.”

Demo­crats’ can­did­ate re­cruit­ment has giv­en them reas­on for con­fid­ence out­side New Hamp­shire, too. The party has found re­l­at­ively pop­u­lar former of­fice­hold­ers like Russ Fein­gold and Ted Strick­land to run in Wis­con­sin and Ohio, re­spect­ively. In part be­cause of their high name re­cog­ni­tion, both men lead in early polls of their match­ups with Re­pub­lic­an Sens. Ron John­son and Rob Port­man.

In Flor­ida, Rep. Patrick Murphy’s en­trance gives Demo­crats a con­gress­man who twice won his battle­ground dis­trict. In Illinois, Rep. Tammy Duck­worth is a dec­or­ated Army vet­er­an, while former gubernat­ori­al can­did­ate Katie Mc­Ginty of­fers Pennsylvania voters a chance to elect their first fe­male sen­at­or. Even in second-tier op­por­tun­it­ies like Ari­zona and Mis­souri, Demo­crats have found le­git­im­ate can­did­ates cap­able of tak­ing ad­vant­age of a mis­take from the GOP in­cum­bent.

Their re­cruit­ment re­cord hasn’t been per­fect: In North Car­o­lina, Demo­crats have been turned down by nearly every vi­able can­did­ate re­cruited by party lead­ers, in­clud­ing former Sen. Kay Hagan. Demo­crats still have to man­age po­ten­tially fraught primar­ies, es­pe­cially in Flor­ida and Pennsylvania. And even can­did­ates who look strong on pa­per can wilt un­der the harsh scru­tiny of a tough race.

But some Re­pub­lic­ans care­fully watch­ing the Sen­ate land­scape grudgingly ad­mit that their foes have put to­geth­er a strong class of re­cruits.

“There’s still a key hole in North Car­o­lina and they haven’t landed the best can­did­ates in Pennsylvania, but on bal­ance Demo­crats have as­sembled a sol­id re­cruit­ing class,” said one seni­or GOP strategist, gran­ted an­onym­ity to speak can­didly.

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