April 20, 2015 — Since 2006, New Hampshire politics has been volatile to the point that no incumbent – Democrat or Republican – can be considered safe. Such is the recent history that first term Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) faces as she prepares for re-election next year.
Gov. Maggie Hassan (D), despite a strong public approval record for most of her first two-year term, struggled to a 52-47 percent victory over unknown businessman Walt Havenstein (R) in the mid-term election.
Under this backdrop, Public Policy Polling conducted a survey of New Hampshire voters (April 9-13; 747 registered New Hampshire voters) and found the two, predictably, locked in a dead heat. According to PPP, if the election were now, Hassan would nip the Senator 46-45 percent.
Ayotte’s ballot test standing is slightly better than her job approval score; the latter showing her mildly upside down, 40:43 percent. By contrast, Hassan’s gubernatorial job performance rates a strong 53:34 percent. Interestingly, this may suggest a more troubling trend for Hassan, leading one to conclude that a significant number of voters who think she is performing well as governor are not supporting her for Senate.
The governor is non-committal about whether she will challenge Ayotte. Since New Hampshire is one of a pair of states that have two-year gubernatorial terms, neighboring Vermont is the other, Hassan is forced to risk her current position to enter what would be a toss-up campaign at best against the incumbent.
The senator’s numbers in comparison to other potential Democratic opponents are much better. If the governor stays put, an obvious alternative candidate would be Rep. Annie Kuster (D-NH-2). In this hypothetical contest, for example, Ayotte would hold a 49-38 percent advantage over the congresswoman.
PPP also tested Hassan against several potential GOP gubernatorial opponents, all with winning electoral records. Against state Senate Majority Leader and former Congressman Jeb Bradley, the governor would lead 53-36 percent. Hassan would defeat Executive Councilor Chris Sununu, son of former Gov. John Sununu and brother of ex-Sen. John E. Sununu, by a similar 52-35 percent spread. Her numbers are even better, 55-25 percent, against Nashua Republican Mayor Donnalee Lozeau.
The other factor weighing upon Hassan would be the effect engendered from the impending presidential campaign, and how the political intangibles derived from the national race would alter her bid against Sen. Ayotte. Since the presidential candidates will virtually create, more than influence, the political climate, much of the political debate would be out of either Senate contender’s control. Such a scenario would be disconcerting to both, but more so to a challenger.
There is no doubt that Gov. Hassan would run the strongest challenge race to Sen. Ayotte, who will not be easy to defeat. Though her job approval may be down in this particular poll – and PPP tends to skew negative on this question for virtually every office holder -– her general standing within the Granite State voting populace has been quite good.
Though both parties are preparing for an Ayotte-Hassan race, it is not a certainty that such will occur. The risk for Hassan is pervasive and her decision whether to run for the Senate is a tough one. With her re-election numbers strong, will she risk her chief executive status for an iffy shot at winning a Senate seat? This question will soon be answered.