Ayotte, Hassan Scrap for Votes in N.H. Dead Heat

Ayotte, Hassan Scrap for Votes in N.H. Dead Heat
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PETERBOROUGH, N.H. -- Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte walked into the Peterborough Diner here just after 7 a.m. Monday, already two hours into her final day’s push before polls open and looking to sway a few last-minute voters. She walked from table to table, shaking hands and posing for pictures, introducing herself as “Kelly” and chatting about anything from political ads to the diner food.

Five and a half hours later, Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, who’s challenging Ayotte, walked into the same restaurant to greet a lunch crowd as she sought the same late-deciding voters. Both found reasons to be optimistic the day before voters head to the polls in the razor-close election that could determine which party controls the Senate next year.

Ayotte spoke with Anna Bachilas, a retired part-time worker who raised three children. Bachilas told the incumbent she seemed different in person than she had on TV. After their conversation, Bachilas told RCP she had been leaning towards Hassan, but was reconsidering -- and remains very torn on which presidential candidate to support.

“I might’ve changed my mind about Kelly,” she said. “I’ll have to really think about that a little bit more. I was kind of going for Maggie Hassan but I don’t know. I might still change my mind."

When the governor stopped in briefly, she spoke to a half-dozen diners, including Tom Fallon, 71, who retired from the hotel business and lives in Peterborough. Fallon is torn about the presidential race, and doesn’t like either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. He had a lot of praise for Trump’s message of change, but doesn’t care for his character; he said he doesn’t trust Clinton or “like anything about her.” He admitted he might not make up his mind until the minute he fills out a ballot. But he’s dead set on his choice for Senate.

He prefers Hassan, mostly because he used to live in Connecticut and was frustrated by Ayotte’s vote against gun-purchase background checks after the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in 2012.

“Kelly had the chance to do something about gun control and she didn’t,” Fallon said. “There wasn’t anybody who wasn’t sympathetic to that situation and she couldn’t tighten up the gun control situation. I was extremely disappointed in that.”

That small sampling was representative of what Ayotte and Hassan are seeing as they crisscross New Hampshire, a small state that looms large for both the Senate and presidential election. Granite Staters are notorious for making late decisions and not necessarily hewing to a party line. Both candidates went out Sunday and Monday looking for any edge they could find. Ayotte, for instance, stood outside a bus terminal in Nashua at 5 a.m., greeting commuters taking a bus to work in Boston. It began a stretch of 24 events she was tackling nonstop until she votes first thing Tuesday morning.

“We’re going to earn the support of the people of New Hampshire and do the last-minute hand-shaking, earn people’s votes,” Ayotte said in an interview outside the dark, cold terminal. “That’s what this is all about. We’re a grassroots politics state and hopefully that will make the difference.”

Hassan, too, has done the retail work, stopping in diners, coffee shops, grocery stores and elsewhere -- her campaign touted 47 retail stops since Thursday. She’s also done multiple events at Democrats’ coordinated campaign offices to energize volunteers doing final-stretch canvassing to get out the vote. She repeatedly emphasized her talking points about Ayotte: that the senator represents “corporate special interests” and “more gridlock”; she also continued to knock Ayotte for backing, and then withdrawing her support from, Trump.

“We always knew this race was going to be close,” the challenger said. “This is a purple state. So I’m just out talking to as many voters as I can, making clear to people what the choice is and what Senator Ayotte’s real record is in Washington.”

But while the two candidates made similar stops in the campaign’s final days, there was also a stark contrast: Hassan appeared at a rally for Clinton Sunday night and with President Obama Monday afternoon, hoping to get a boost from the top of her ticket. Trump hosted his final New Hampshire rally Monday evening in front of a packed house at an arena in Manchester, but Ayotte was 45 minutes away, meeting with students on the University of New Hampshire campus.

With no early voting in the state, the parties’ last-minute efforts to energize voters could prove to be the deciding factor. Democrats are confident they hold an advantage, thanks to their superior organizing efforts. Canvassers grouped together to knock on doors for Clinton and Hassan, as well as candidates for governor, House and the state legislature. The coordinated campaign knocked on more than 400,000 doors over the weekend and made 180,000 phone calls; they knocked on more than 1.3 million doors since July.

A New Hampshire Republican source pushed back on the idea that Democrats’ ground game would give them an advantage. The source said GOP efforts have more coordination between the Trump campaign, Ayotte’s team and the Republican National Committee than most have acknowledged; the source said the RNC knocked on more than 50,000 doors last week, while the Ayotte camp knocked on 30,000 -- still far fewer than Democrats’ recent effort, but that they have hit more than 1 million doors this year.

“There’s some disenchanted ‘Never Trump’ Republicans that aren’t involved in any of this and think they know what they’re talking about,” the source said. “To say that there’s no coordination of universes, volunteers, staff is just ludicrous.”

If either party’s effort sparks a greater turnout, it could be the difference given that both races are a dead heat. The RealClearPolitics polling average shows Clinton leading by a minuscule 0.3 percentage points and Ayotte up 1.5 points. A second GOP source said internal polling shows Trump down by one point and Ayotte leading by a single point.

The state could prove monumental if the presidential race is close -- Democrats here like pointing out that Al Gore wouldn’t have needed to carry Florida in 2000 had he won New Hampshire. And with Republicans defending a slim four-seat Senate majority, New Hampshire’s results could help determine which party holds the majority.

Both candidates mentioned the high stakes Monday, but both also made efforts to enjoy the final day of campaigning in what has been a hard-fought, massively expensive and overwhelmingly negative race.

As she finished up her first diner visit, Ayotte asked her staff to purchase “a bunch of bacon” that they snacked on while heading to her next event. At that second diner, an hour later, she ordered grape-nut pudding with some whipped cream on the side, a personal favorite. Hassan, meanwhile, got a caffeine boost at a coffee shop in Keene late in the morning and got a kick out of the message her barista left when adding milk: The server wrote “vote” in milk at the top of the drink.

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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