In 2016, all politics is Donald Trump. Whatever he says, however he says it, dominates the headlines and the public consciousness. The effect is so pronounced that many Republicans worry he is doing fatal damage to the party’s Senate and House candidates, who have struggled to differentiate themselves from him with the little media attention they’re given. But as the campaign enters the home stretch, glimpses of separation are starting to appear between the party’s candidates down ballot and its presidential nominee.
This is perhaps nowhere more so than in New Hampshire, where Republican senator Kelly Ayotte faces a challenge from sitting Democratic governor Maggie Hassan. The race is one of the marquee matchups of the cycle, one that both Democrats and Republicans expect will keep them up late on election night awaiting a verdict. Given Ayotte’s unique position with respect to Trump, it is also shaping up to be something of a test case for how down-ballot Republicans handle the GOP nominee.
Ayotte is the only female Republican senator in a competitive reelection race this cycle, in a year when the GOP nominee regularly makes disparaging remarks about women. Her husband is a military man, in a year when Trump sparked controversy by criticizing Senator John McCain, one of her closest colleagues in the upper chamber, for being captured and held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. She has not been shy about criticizing Trump on both fronts, even as she has stopped short of publicly refusing to endorse him.
This uncomfortable bind Ayotte finds herself in isn’t going away. Last week, the only other Republican senator in New England, Susan Collins, announced she would not vote for Trump for many of the same reasons Ayotte has criticized him. The move put pressure on Ayotte to go even further in separating herself from Trump. But breaking with the party’s nominee is unrealistic for a Republican running in any swing state, much less New Hampshire, which gave Trump his first win of 2016 in resounding fashion. He soundly obliterated the competition in the February GOP primary, winning 100,000 votes.
Those are 100,000 votes that Ayotte cannot afford to lose if she hopes to secure reelection. Some of those are votes she could lose, too: Aaron Day, a conservative activist, filed to run as an independent this week — pending approval of his petition by the secretary of state — on the grounds that he does not consider Ayotte sufficiently conservative. Republicans don’t expect Day to be much of a factor, but he could gain some oxygen if Ayotte were to denounce the GOP nominee for president.
“No Republican officeholder is going to be very successful, in my view, endorsing the nominee of the other party,” says Steve Duprey, the New Hampshire Republican National Committeeman and Ayotte’s former finance chairman.
Republican Senate operatives are adamant that they see no evidence that Trump is any kind of a drag on their candidates. And Ayotte’s allies dismiss the idea that her fortunes are tied to Trump’s at all. They insist that New Hampshire voters are discerning, and that split-ticket voting is standard practice in the state. Ayotte’s campaign chairman Stephen Merrill, the former two-term governor of the state, recalls his first run for that office in 1992, in which he found himself on the ballot just below George H. W. Bush, who was set to lose badly to Bill Clinton. “I remember looking at it and saying, ‘Oh boy, I’m done,’” he says. Clinton beat Bush 39 percent to 38 percent in New Hampshire, with Ross Perot taking 23 percent of the vote. Merrill won his race with 56 percent of the vote.
That’s not to say state Republicans wouldn’t rather the party’s presidential nominee got back on message, of course.
“You’re never in control when you’re in a presidential year, but even less so this year when Trump has the ability — or liability — to dominate news cycle after news cycle in a way that may be totally contrary to where are you and what you’re trying to stress in your campaign at the time,” says New Hampshire Republican strategist Tom Rath.
#share#Asked about Trump, Ayotte’s campaign and her supporters stress that she has carved out an independent brand as someone who represents New Hampshire, not any party or person. The message to voters, says Merrill, is: “Kelly is your senator. Whatever else you do, make sure you vote for her.”
Ayotte has said she will support Trump, but she has declined to endorse him. It’s a tenuous and arguably nonexistent distinction, and it has earned her a fair bit of ridicule from Democrats and the media. But with each successive explosion from the Trump campaign, Ayotte has been one of the most pointedly critical of all the endangered Republican incumbents.
“I am appalled that Donald Trump would disparage them and that he had the gall to compare his own sacrifices to those of a Gold Star family,” she said in a statement following Trump’s attacks on Khizr and Ghazala Khan.
“His comments are offensive and wrong, and he should retract them,” she said, after Trump suggested a judge of Mexican descent could not help but have a conflict of interest in deciding a lawsuit against Trump because Trump wanted to build a wall on the southern border with Mexico.
And Ayotte condemned Trump’s comment this week that “the Second Amendment people” might be able to “do” something about Clinton’s Supreme Court nominations.
“I think [New Hampshire voters] either understand or are coming to understand that Kelly is an independent voice for New Hampshire and calls it like she sees it,” says Duprey.
Trump’s own comments might have aided that perception. Two weeks ago, in an interview with the Washington Post, he pointedly declined to endorse her reelection — along with John McCain’s and House speaker Paul Ryan’s. He later reversed course, bowing to pressure not to stoke intraparty rivalries, but the message was clear. “Trump’s public spat with her sort of helps her,” says Charlie Arlinghaus, the president of the Josiah Barlett Center for Public Policy in New Hampshire, which advocates for free-market economic reforms. “It emphasizes the point that she’s independent.”
Ironically, it was Collins, Ayotte’s fellow northern moderate, who hurt the New Hampshire senator’s efforts to survive Hurricane Trump the most in the last week. On Monday, Collins wrote an op-ed in the Post declaring she could not and would not support Trump for president. In her piece, she cited many of the comments Ayotte has denounced. Such a public repudiation of the party’s nominee, coming from someone to whom Ayotte is frequently compared as a matter of course, brought her under pressure to do more than simply rebuke individual comments. Democrats, who have all along argued that Ayotte’s support for Trump is an example of her putting party politics ahead of principle, have already begun pointedly questioning why Ayotte has not followed Collins’s lead.
Ayotte appears to have no intention of doing so.
“Obviously, there’s a presidential race going on. I’ve said that I’m going to be voting for our nominee, but I’ve also been quite clear when I’ve had disagreements with him, which I will continue to do,” Ayotte said in a video posted by NH1 reporter Paul Steinhauser this week.
The political calculus behind this move makes sense. Collins holds a relatively safe seat that she will not have to defend for another four years; Ayotte is locked in one of the most competitive Senate races of the cycle — one that many Republicans believe could determine which party holds the Senate majority.
Several Republicans liken the race to the North Carolina Senate campaign of 2014 in terms of the sheer amount of outside spending it has drawn. Its contours — Trump’s unforeseen ascent to the top of the ticket not withstanding — have been clear for some years. American Crossroads began spending on Ayotte’s behalf in early 2015, before Hassan had even announced her candidacy.
#related#As much as the top of the ticket has nationalized the race, both sides are wont to talk in terms of local issues, arguing over which candidate is best for New Hampshire. Rob Engstrom, the national political director at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is backing Ayotte, points to 2012, when Democrats successfully localized Senate races in states such as Montana and North Dakota, where Mitt Romney won by more than ten points. “The Senate majority will be determined by those candidates who can most effectively localize the impacts of federal policy. Local beats everything,” he says. In some ways, that is the very nature of this race. Ayotte might be the Senate incumbent, but Hassan, as sitting governor, is also an incumbent. Which means both women must make the case that the state’s voters should fire the other.
Ayotte’s allies argue that Clinton could ultimately weigh as much on Hassan as Trump has weighed on her. But can the focus shift away from Trump long enough for that to become the case? With two well-known and well-liked Senate candidates and two unpopular presidential candidates, New Hampshire is shaping up as a stark test of just how much voters are willing to separate the names at the top of the ticket from those in the column below them.
— Alexis Levinson is the senior political reporter for National Review.