New Hampshire bellwether points to challenges for Democrats
MILFORD, N.H. — The battle for the Senate majority will go through New Hampshire, where Sen. Maggie Hassan (D) is facing a difficult reelection contest given the nation’s sour mood over inflation and COVID-19.
Those issues are also making it difficult for Hassan and Democrats to break through to voters in parts of the swing state the party is worried about.
In Milford, a small, industrial town, that apathy is apparent.
“One thing that’s affected my life lately is the cost of things,” said Glenn Nutting, a 64-year-old carpenter and registered independent who voted for former President Obama before going for former President Trump twice.
“Your dollar’s not worth what it was. Did the Biden administration cause this? Well, it’s happened since he’s been in there,” he said over a beer on a chilly Wednesday afternoon.
Milford is the kind of place you’d think might grow Biden voters.
It’s working class, pro-union and has a Catholic church in the middle of town.
Voters here chose Trump over Hillary Clinton by some three dozen votes in 2016, but flipped to Biden by 6 percent in 2020. He promised to offer towns like this a boost.
Now, some voters feel fatigued and annoyed, saying they are concerned with the direction of the country and things that impact their daily lives more than the elections for control of Congress.
“Why aren’t the gas prices going down?” said Heather, an office manager and two-time Trump voter who’s new to town and wished to be identified by only her first name.
“It’s made things definitely challenging and a hell of a lot more expensive.”
Neither Nutting nor Heather are closely monitoring the Senate race, but polling captures the headwinds faced by Hassan and other Democrats.
A poll by Saint Anselm College’s Institute of Politics found that 74 percent of registered voters in the state say the nation is heading on the “wrong track” — a metric that is politically worse for incumbents up for reelection.
New Hampshire Democrats hope the lack of a top-tier challenger to Hassan will help her win a victory and keep the Senate in Democratic hands.
Gov. Chris Sununu’s (R) shocking decision to pass up a challenge to Hassan gave Democrats a big gift, leaving Republicans with B-team candidates in a crucial race that could decide the next Senate majority.
“After failing to get their top Senate recruit, Republicans are left with a messy and divisive primary filled with bottom-tier candidates,” said Amanda Sherman Baity, a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee focused on the New Hampshire race.
“Whichever candidate finally emerges from this intraparty brawl will be badly damaged and completely out of step with Granite State voters.”
Ray Buckley, the state Democratic Party’s longtime chairman, told The Hill the GOP contenders are running merely as a “rubber stamp for Mitch McConnell’s agenda of banning abortion, defunding Planned Parenthood, and supporting corporate special interests.”
The Sununu name in Granite State politics is a strong one — Sununu’s father John H. Sununu was himself governor, while his brother John E. Sununu represented the state in both the House and Senate — and Democratic operatives are grateful that they won’t have to think about the prospect of a Sununu dynasty in the Senate.
The Saint Anselm poll found that the handful of Republican primary contenders seeking to oust Hassan, including retired Army Gen. Don Bolduc, New Hampshire state Senate President Chuck Morse and Londonderry Town Manager Kevin Smith, have significantly less name identification than the junior senator.
That could change by November. But even some Republicans are already starting to get anxious about the lack of a clear front-runner to knock an incumbent they thought might be an easy target.
“They say a week in politics is forever,” said Fran Wendelboe, a longtime conservative leader in the state.
“People are frustrated with the Democrats in general, but I don’t think Republicans have really focused on who is the best person.”
Without Sununu in the running, strategists from both parties are waiting to see if the National Republican Senatorial Committee will offer an endorsement — or if an even bigger looming presence, Trump — will give his blessing to a select candidate.
Bolduc reportedly ticked off people in Trump’s orbit during the 2020 cycle, and Morse endorsed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, just two of the several problems that Democrats point to as potential flare-ups as the GOP primary unfolds.
“I still think it’s anyone’s game. As long as they don’t beat each other up too badly in the primary,” Wendelboe said.
Granite State voters awarded Democrats a crucial Senate seat six years ago, when Hassan, then the state’s governor, edged out Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) while Trump took the White House. The pickup shocked politicos in both parties.
Politically engaged donors have already started to express interest in the race through an influx of cash. According to a recent analysis by CNN, nearly $17 million has already poured into the contest, placing it as the fourth highest sum in the top five Senate targets. Local news channel WMUR also reported that Hassan’s campaign consistently broke fundraising records quarter after quarter.
“Senator Hassan has won statewide in tough years for national Democrats by staying laser-focused on getting wins for the people of New Hampshire,” said Kevin Donohoe, communications director for Hassan’s campaign.
“We won’t hesitate to contrast Senator Hassan’s record of fighting corporate special interest to help lower costs for Granite Staters with the fact that all of her opponents would be rubber-stamps for Mitch McConnell, Big Pharma, and Big Oil.”
They also want to link Hassan to Biden’s pledge that middle- and lower-income Americans deserve a chance for economic improvement and that things like reproductive freedom and child care will be enhanced under his administration.
Some of that has already happened. A Biden-led $350 billion COVID-19 stimulus package offered temporary relief to families struggling to offset unexpected costs of the nearly three-year pandemic.
The $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that Biden signed into law in November is also a piece of legislation that could benefit Hassan, who served as a lead negotiator on it. Biden visited the Woodstock area of the state during the fall to promote its passage.
Hassan also held a roundtable in Milford to discuss supply chain issues, a top of mind concern to the administration and to Democratic lawmakers serving in areas with high populations of industrial jobs like Nutting’s.
But inflation looms large nonetheless.
“Thirty-five or 40 years ago, I was making more money,” Nutting said. “I really was.”