Oct. 7, 2015 — New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) announced Monday that she will challenge Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) next year. Rumors abounded since the time Hassan was re-elected to a second two-year term that she would in fact make the move to the Senate race. Recently, however, it appeared that the chances of her giving up the governorship in order to challenge the Republican incumbent were becoming lesser. So, the announcement came as a mild surprise.
The move increases the Democrats’ chances of re-taking the Senate because they put another state in play. This is clearly now a toss-up race, featuring two veteran statewide candidates in the most unpredictable of political states. No place has defeated more federal incumbents since 2006 than New Hampshire. Beginning with Jeanne Shaheen’s (D) victory over then-Sen. John E. Sununu (R) nine years ago, the electorate has subsequently unseated six congressional incumbents while only re-electing three during this five-election period.
The New Hampshire political tides have also been strong. Except for the governor’s office, which has remained primarily in Democratic hands, the state has swept out the entire slate of both party office holders almost routinely in the past 10 years.
The electorate defied the trend a bit in the Republican landslide year of 2014, however. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) was re-elected in the face of a Republican tide, nipping former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown (R), and freshman Rep. Annie Kuster (D-Concord) held her 2nd District seat by a 10-point margin. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D) went down to defeat a second time to current and former Rep. Frank Guinta (R). The two will square off for a fourth time next year.
The polls have been projecting a close Ayotte-Hassan Senate race for months, the last three published surveys being pretty typical of the regularly reported numbers. The brand new WMUR-University of New Hampshire poll (Sept. 24-Oct. 12; 519 registered New Hampshire voters) just reported finding the senator to be holding a 45-43 percent lead over the governor. NBC News/Marist College (Aug. 26-Sept. 2; 966 registered New Hampshire voters) released a similar 48-45 percent spread in Ayotte’s favor at the beginning of September. Public Policy Polling (Aug. 21-24; 841 registered New Hampshire voters) also landed in the same realm. They found Sen. Ayotte’s lead at 44-43 percent in late August.
Sen. Ayotte, the state’s former attorney general, which is an appointed position in New Hampshire, won a landslide victory in 2010 defeating then-Rep. Paul Hodes (D-NH-2), 60-37 percent. But, that was only after winning a tight Republican primary against perennial social conservative candidate Ovide Lamontagne. She was nominated via a razor-thin 38-37 percent margin, with two other candidates sharing 23 percent, among almost 139,000 Republican primary ballots cast.
Hassan won her first term as governor, also defeating Lamontagne, 55-43 percent, in 2012 riding the Obama re-election wave. She won again in 2014, but her victory spread dropped to 52-47 percent against businessman Walt Havenstein (R). Never thought to be in any re-election danger because her favorability ratings were consistently strong throughout her first term, the closeness of the 2014 Hassan victory weakens her somewhat against Ayotte.
Nationally, Democrats are on the upswing in challenges versus Republican senators Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Ron Johnson (R-WI), but they are failing to get a credible foothold against Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey (R). Protecting outgoing Minority Leader Harry Reid’s (D) Nevada seat will also be a tough fight. Therefore, recruiting Gov. Hassan into the New Hampshire campaign must be rated as a major positive for the out-party’s national prospects, and certainly the Granite State Senate contest immediately becomes a top-tier campaign that either side can win.