New Hampshire Senate race ramps up in final stretch

New Hampshire Senate race ramps up in final stretch
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Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteSununu setback leaves GOP scrambling in New Hampshire The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - GOP dealt 2022 blow, stares down Trump-era troubles Sununu exit underscores uncertain GOP path to gain Senate majority MORE (R-N.H.) and Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) will battle in a pivotal debate Monday that could go a long way toward deciding their tight Senate race — and which partywill control the majority.

Ayotte and Hassan are in a virtual tossup race, with several recent surveys flipping the leadbetween the candidates by only a few points.


Political observers say both New Hampshire lawmakers are running nearly flawless campaigns and are relatively popular in their respective parties. And because polling is within the margin of error, they define it as one of the most unpredictable and consequential races this cycle.

“They know how to get out the vote, they know how to run a statewide effort, and they both have really strong campaign machines behind them,” said Scott Spradling, a former WMUR-TV political director. “So this is a clash of the titans in New Hampshire.”

Ayotte is so far outperforming her party’s presidential nominee Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFormer defense secretary Esper sues Pentagon in memoir dispute Biden celebrates start of Hanukkah Fauci says lies, threats are 'noise' MORE in several Granite State polls and some observers can envision a scenario where she can survive even if Democraticpresidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCountering the ongoing Republican delusion Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Poll: Democracy is under attack, and more violence may be the future MORE wins the state narrowly.

But Ayotte also faces reelection during a presidential year when down-ballot Democrats are typically favored. Clinton has led every poll in the state since August 2015, and a survey released Friday had her up 9 points. If Clinton polls near the double digits, they say that complicates Ayotte’s already narrow path.

With the tightness of the race, Spradling said the debates present an opportunity for both candidates as “the first...true test of how they might each do against each other in a higher stakes exercise.”

“These are really disciplined candidates who know what they’re doing and it’s hard to push them off their game,” he added.

By election day, Ayotte and Hassan willhave squared off in six debates. The first one was held Friday morning and was only available by livestream from local news outlets. It was a more intimate setting with fewer chances to offer rebuttals and more personal questions including their favorite local places to hike.

Monday night will be the first televised debate hosted by New England Cable News (NECN), likely attracting a larger audience andgiving the two more of a chance to engage. There will be two more televised ones and two radio debates.

During Friday’s debate, both candidates struck a polite tone, but familiar attacks between the two resurfaced and offered a preview into the kinds of attacks to come in the final weeks of the marquee race.

Hassan needled Ayotte over campaign finance reformwhile expressing her opposition to the Citizens United ruling and lamented that there is “too much money in politics.”

When Ayotte responded, she laughed in exasperation and cited her proposalto Hassan from February called the “People’s Pledge” which aims to limit spending from outside groups. A similar pledge was agreed to in the 2012 Senate race in Massachusetts and proposed in the 2014 race in New Hampshire.

Hassan insteadsigned what she called a “strengthened” pledge, where the candidates would also have to abide to a $15 million spending cap, but an agreement on the pledge never materialized.

“To hear Gov. Hassan talk about keeping dark money out of this Senate race...” she said to laughter and applause from the audience, adding that voters can’t avoid seeing negative ads from outside groups backing her opponent.Both candidates have outside groups spending millions to go on the air for them.

“I wanted this race to be about our campaigns,” she continued. “I think we could have kept dark money out of this race which is why I'm disappointed."

The race is expected to be one of the most expensive Senate battles this cycle and it’s already seen a deluge of outside spending from both sides of the aisle of more than $55 million, according to WMUR-TV.

In addition to the six debates, Ayotte proposed a seventh solely focused on national security, but Hassan declined. It’s an area where strategists say Ayotte can thrive and suggest that she bring up as much as possible in the remaining debates.

“That’s an issue where she has a distinct and clear advantage over Gov. Hassan,” said Jim Merrill, a veteran New Hampshire GOP strategist. “Gov. Hassan is very adept at talking about state issues, but on issues voters are looking at for Senate seat, national security is at the top of the list and Kelly has real distinguished herself in D.C. as a leader on that.”

One area where observers can see Ayotte being put in a difficult position is how she addresses Trump. The GOP senator has been very cautious -- she supports, but doesn’t endorse the real estate mogul.

On Friday, the debate opened with a question to Ayotte about where she differs from Trump. She noted their differences on NATO and Russia, where Trump has been critical of the transatlantic alliance and has offered praise about Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But in the middle of Friday's debate, the Boston Globe’s editorial board published a story calling on Ayotte to disavow Trumpaltogether.

Christopher Galdieri, political science professor at Saint Anselm Collegein Manchester, N.H., said he’s surprised Hassan and Democrats haven’t been“pressing the Trump button harder.” Henoted they can frame it in terms of the Supreme Court vacancy if the next president ends up filling the open seat on the bench.

“I think for Ayotte, she’s got to figure out how to address the Trump problem,” Galdieri said. Hesaid Hassan, on the other hand, will need to address why she’s running for a seat in the upper chamber “besides seeking a promotion.”

Beyond the candidates’ performances at the debates and on the campaign trail, strategists saythe top-tier race is largely out of their hands. They say, like most Senate battlegrounds this cycle, it’s mainly contingent on voter turnout and what happens at the top of the ticket.

“These are two strong lawmakers and somebody’s going to go home,” Spradling said.