There was a fascinating omission in last night’s debate, if you were watching it closely, and it mirrored one in the final Iowa debate. Not one of the Republican candidates mentioned Kelly Ayotte, the state’s lone major Republican statewide officeholder, elected with 60% of the vote in 2010 and currently leading most polls for re-election by a few points over a strong Democratic challenger, Governor Maggie Hassan. Ayotte has gone out of her way to stay neutral in this race, but with two of her Senate colleagues onstage and one Governor (Christie) who campaigned a lot with her for Mitt Romney in 2012, you’d normally expect the presidential contenders to try to ingratiate themselves with the hometown crowd by singing the praises of a generally well-liked home state politician. Yet she was mentioned only once, by a moderator, just as was the case for Iowa Governor Terry Branstad (the longest-serving Governor in American history) in the last Iowa debate and no mentions at all of that state’s two Republican Senators, Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley. Branstad finally got a mention last night as the villain in Ted Cruz’s closing statement.
As much as anything, that speaks to the mood the candidates are encountering, why the first-term Senators have been downplaying their experience and why the governors as a group have fared badly so far in this race: the primary voters are just really so hostile to the political system that even relatively popular local politicians and resumes of real accomplishment are getting nowhere.
Expect that to change in South Carolina; Marco Rubio is leaning hard on the endorsements of Senator Tim Scott and Congressman Trey Gowdy, and my guess is that the remaining Senators/Governors in the race will all try to associate themselves with Governor Nikki Haley. But its absence so far is a story all to itself.