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New Hampshire’s Tight-as-a-Clamshell Senate Race

An orgy of spending on a contest that could decide which party controls the Senate

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., seen at a September Republican event, cannot avoid being hurt by Donald Trump's unpopularity in the Granite State, writes Walter Shapiro. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., seen at a September Republican event, cannot avoid being hurt by Donald Trump's unpopularity in the Granite State, writes Walter Shapiro. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

MANCHESTER, N.H. — It would be a final irony in a bizarre political year if America had to wait until the wee hours on Wednesday to find out which party will control the Senate because endangered GOP incumbent Kelly Ayotte wrote in Mike Pence for president as she planned.

In most New Hampshire towns, ballots with write-in votes for president are put aside to be counted at the end. And in state where, according to the new Granite State Poll, just 80 percent of Republicans are backing Donald Trump, Ayotte will not be the only GOP voter casting a symbolic ballot for president.

Less than 24 hours before the polls open in New Hampshire — a state with minimal early voting and same-day registration — Ayotte’s reelection race against popular Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan (2.9 percent state unemployment rate) remains one of the closest battles in the country.

Try as she might, Ayotte cannot escape being pulled down by the Trump undertow. In an early October debate with Hassan, Ayotte answered “absolutely” when asked if Trump was a good role model for her children. After the debate, she issued a statement claiming that she “misspoke.” And then Ayotte announced that she would write in Pence after Trump was caught boasting about sexual assault on a hot-mic 2005 tape.

[Kelly Ayotte Easily Outruns Primary Opponents]

Hassan still tweaks Ayotte over the name at the top of the GOP ticket, saying at a Saturday afternoon rally, “Until very recently, she stood with Donald Trump, her nominee.”

But even ardent Trump supporters don’t hold Ayotte’s apostasy against her. As Ayotte went table-to-table — freely dispensing hugs and shoulder pats — at MaryAnn’s Diner in Derry on Sunday morning, Wally Heath, an 84-year-old retired manufacturers representative, said, “It’s a personal choice that she can make on who to vote for president. It’s just like you and me.”

These days, Ayotte’s Trump problem is primarily that the unpopularity of GOP nominee (65 percent unfavorable in the Granite State Poll) requires her to run well ahead of the GOP ticket. Influential Democratic state senator Lou D’Allesandro said over breakfast Monday morning, “If Hillary beats Trump by five points here, Maggie Hassan is the U.S. senator.”

Veteran Republican strategist Tom Rath makes a similar calculation, “These are two of the most popular candidates in the country running against each other. If this were a normal year, Kelly would be up by seven points. But it’s not a normal year.”

The latest Granite State Poll, released late Sunday night, gives Hassen a 52-to-47 percent lead, which is just outside the survey’s margin of error. Other recent polls give a small edge to Ayotte. Both sides agree on one thing: It’s probably going to be as tight as a clamshell from New Hampshire’s seacoast that won’t open in the pan.

[Democratic Poll: Hassan Leads Ayotte Narrowly in New Hampshire]

“The race was close from the beginning,” said Andy Smith, who directs the Granite State Poll for the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. “I’d give Hassan a 3-percent edge because it’s a Democratic state. And I would give Ayotte a 3-percent edge because she’s the incumbent.”

Over $80 million has been spent on this race by outside groups — and another $34 million by the candidates themselves — in a state where around 700,000 votes were cast in the last presidential election. That works out to about $160 per voter or about enough to hand out free budget-priced laptop computers at the polls.

This orgy of spending has had two major results — campaign consultants in both parties can now afford expensive beach houses and Granite State residents are afraid to turn on their television sets before Wednesday. But it is hard to see how the voice-of-doom attack ads have moved the needle either way.

There is a paint-by-numbers quality to the contest. As Kathy Sullivan, a former Democratic state chair, puts it, “It’s going to come down to a party versus party race.” With so much at stake, every answer given by both Hassan and Ayotte in the closing hours of the campaign has a poll-tested feel to it.

As Hassan said responding to reporters’ questions in the back of campaign headquarters in Derry on Saturday, “We need a senator who will put the people of this state first. And what I think you see in my opponent is someone who will stand with their party at all lengths from the Supreme Court blockade to supporting Donald Trump.”  

Ayotte was equally predictable as she gave a small press conference on the sidewalk after her Sunday diner stop in Derry. “What I know is that the people of New Hampshire are going to decide this based on who’s going to be their voice, who will stand up for them no matter what,” she said. “That’s what I do and that’s what this race is about.”

What this race is really about is that Hassan is depending on the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton while Ayotte is trying to walk the fine line between independence and loyal Republicanism. And, if it weren’t for a bilious billionaire named Trump, Ayotte would probably have the edge.

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