Trump Effect in N.H. Sparks Worries for a GOP Senate
Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s campaign strategy has been to localize her re-election effort, keeping the focus on her home state of New Hampshire in an attempt to inoculate herself from the top of the GOP ticket.
But those efforts were thrown for a loop this week when Donald Trump pointedly criticized her as “weak” on Tuesday and a new poll Thursday showed her trailing by double digits, dragged down by the Republican nominee’s unpopularity in the state.
The trouble for Ayotte coincides with a particularly negative week for Trump, as his campaign has been roiled by his comments about the Muslim parents of a fallen U.S. soldier and his refusal to endorse top Republican lawmakers in their primaries, including Speaker Paul Ryan. These issues, and the success of the Democratic convention last week, have given Hillary Clinton a major boost in the polls. Several this week show her with a double-digit lead over Trump.
The situation in New Hampshire has sparked some Republican panic about the effect Trump may have on the party’s majorities in Congress, particularly in tough Senate races in the battleground states of Pennsylvania and Ohio.
The New Hampshire poll, released by WBUR, showed Clinton leading Trump by 15 percentage points and showed Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan with a 10-point lead over Ayotte.
Democrats have made tying Trump to congressional Republicans a key part of their strategy to regain the majority in the Senate. Republicans currently hold a four-seat majority but are defending 24 seats to Democrats’ 10.
Aaron Jacobs, a spokesman for Hassan’s campaign, attributed the drop-off in Ayotte’s support directly to her backing of Trump despite his recent string of controversies.
"It's clear that Ayotte’s decision to support Trump for president — and to continue to stand by him as he reinforces every day just how temperamentally unfit he is to serve as president — is hurting Ayotte's standing with New Hampshire voters,” he said. “Ayotte's continued support of Trump tells Granite Staters all they need to know about her lack of political courage, and voters will reject the Trump-Ayotte ticket in November."
Liz Johnson, a spokeswoman for Ayotte, said in a statement, “Kelly has a strong record as an independent voice who delivers results for New Hampshire and that’s what our campaign is focused on."
Some Democrats and Republicans cautioned that Thursday’s New Hampshire poll could be an outlier, and that they expect the race to be much closer in the fall. Most of the other polling in the race has shown the two candidates within a couple points of each other, and Hassan leads by just one percentage point in the RealClearPolitics average. But Trump’s massive drop-off in the state was cause for concern, particularly if future polls show a similar margin.
Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire GOP, said he was surprised recent polls had the race as close as it is and said it highlights how difficult it will be for Ayotte to outpace Trump if he loses New Hampshire by a wide margin. Cullen said he’d looked at New Hampshire Senate races going back decades, and there were next to no examples of Senate candidates outperforming their presidential candidates by more than a few percentage points.
“You point to me an example in any state over the last 20 years where a candidate has successfully distanced themselves from the top of the ticket and won an election,” Cullen said. “You just can’t find such examples.”
Ryan Williams, a veteran GOP strategist who has run several races in New Hampshire, said the WBUR poll is an outlier but admitted that Trump is a legitimate problem for down-ballot Republicans. He pointed to Trump’s lack of ground game and campaign infrastructure in the Granite State, which forces the Republican National Committee to overextend itself, which in turn forces Ayotte’s campaign to make up the resources the presidential ticket and party committee would normally provide. However, he went on to praise Ayotte’s campaign and said her team is running a strong ground game.
“No question Donald Trump is a major distraction, not just for the Senate race in New Hampshire but for every Republican candidate across the country,” Williams said. “He is a self-centered, destructive individual who doesn’t seem to care about anything but settling scores based on perceived slights. He is a very bad nominee at the top of the ticket who doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘team.’”
Trump showed his willingness to lash out at Republican leaders earlier this week. In addition to refusing to endorse Speaker Ryan or Sen. John McCain, he criticized Ayotte as weak and said – incorrectly – that he was beating her in polls.
“We need loyal people in this country,” Trump said in a Washington Post interview. “We need fighters in this country. We don’t need weak people. We have enough of them. We need fighters in this country. But Kelly Ayotte has given me zero support and I’m doing great in New Hampshire.”
Ayotte, for her part, brushed off the criticism with a simple statement: “I call it like I see it, and I'm always going to stand up for our military families and what's best for the people of New Hampshire.”
Still, she has not withdrawn her support of Trump – although it was hardly full-throated – as she has said she will support but not endorse him, something Democrats have criticized endlessly. Yet it’s possible Trump’s comments about Ayotte could actually benefit her, since he pointedly said, “I don’t know Kelly Ayotte,” and she has given him “zero support.”
Cullen, the former state GOP chairman, said Ayotte’s campaign should be wary of future polls showing similarly large deficits. Since the party is defending so many seats, resources will be tight, he warned, and Ayotte could see a dip in outside funding if it looks like the race is moving out of reach.
Cullen pointed to 2008 as a potentially predictive example. President Obama defeated McCain, the GOP nominee, by 10 points in New Hampshire, and Republican Sen. John Sununu, while slightly outpacing McCain, still lost by six.
“He was a good, hard-working senator, was attendant to his state and was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and lost, and I feel similarly about Kelly,” Cullen said. “Hassan is a mediocre governor, a mediocre politician and a mediocre Senate candidate, but being mediocre in the right place at the right time might be all that’s needed."