The Hippo


May 28, 2020








Hedging bets
State GOP navigates a Trump ticket and incumbent challenges

By Ryan Lessard

 Republican leaders in New Hampshire are not all on the same page, and few arenas reveal this lack of unity more than the congressional races, where candidates are staking differing positions on how to deal with Donald Trump as the presidential nominee and incumbents who would normally get full party backing are fighting off primary challengers. 

Tightrope walking
In the race for Republican Kelly Ayotte’s U.S. Senate seat, the stakes are no less high than control of the Senate, the spending is expected to break records and Ayotte’s Democratic opponent, Gov. Maggie Hassan, is punching in the same weight.  
Add to that a swing state that tends to favor Democrats in presidential election years and it’s clear that Ayotte has her work cut out for her.
But what had been a tight race, with both Hassan and Ayotte getting about 40 to 50 percent of the likely voters in polls over the summer, has shown Ayotte falling behind recently, by as much as 10 points. That was reported by a WBUR/MassINC poll conducted at the end of July. The reason for the shift? Trump’s plummeting numbers, according to analysts. In the same poll, Trump was trailing Hillary Clinton by 15 points.
“Under normal circumstances, it’s a challenge for Republicans running in a presidential year here in New Hampshire, certainly in the last decade plus, but now you mix in this really challenging nominee who is getting you a lot of unwanted press because you have to deal with him — absolutely it’s reasonable for her to be concerned,” said Southern New Hampshire University civic scholar Dean Spiliotes.
UNH political scientist Dante Scala said New Hampshire has swung toward Democratic candidates every presidential election since 2000 when George W. Bush won 48 percent of the state against Al Gore’s 46.8 percent. And as the top of the ticket goes, so follows everyone below.
Part of Ayotte’s drop in the polls can be explained by party affiliation, but Ayotte has also — somewhat tacitly — anchored herself to the Trump mothership by saying she will vote for him, even though she says she will not endorse him (more on that later).
That mothership was a veritable Hindenburg in late July and early August as party conventions wrapped up. Trump suffered from the aftermath of stories such as a back and forth with a Gold Star family, defending his retweet of a symbol circulated by white supremacists that’s seen as anti-semitic, a campaign manager with ties to a Russian-backed Ukrainian government and reports that his campaign organization is a hot mess. 
Stories circulated that the Republican party was scrambling to find ways to replace him as nominee and that national party chairperson Reince Priebus was threatening to redirect support to congressional races if Trump didn’t moderate his message and rein in his incendiary rhetoric for the general election.
Scala said Ayotte has been damaged not only by criticisms of Trump, but by criticisms by Trump himself, when he expressed frustrations that Ayotte wouldn’t endorse him. And things got tense when Ayotte publicly stated she was “appalled” by Trump’s disparaging remarks about a Gold Star family and that he had the “gall” to compare his sacrifices to that of a family who lost a child on a battlefield. Still, the two appeared to bury the hatchet and establish an “uneasy detente,” as Scala described it. 
“Really she is a test case on the difficulties of running with Trump at the top of the ticket,” Spiliotes said.
To make matters worse, just as Ayotte began to struggle in the polls, she was cast in sharp relief against other New England Republican senators when Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, said she would not vote for Trump. 
Spiliotes said Ayotte is dogged by her support for Trump because her support of the nominee attracts reporters constantly asking if she still supports him after the latest controversial remarks or actions by the New York businessman.
“I think the only way she could have put this to rest completely would be to say, ‘I don’t support the guy, I’m not gonna vote for him,’” Spiliotes said.
But that was hardly an option for Ayotte, who needs to garner the support of the Republican base and independents. 
“You want to kind of tend to your party’s faithful but at the same time you want to make a play for the independent voters,” Spiliotes said. “It’s not an unnatural thing to try to strike a balance like that but it just sort of opens the door to constant recycling of the issue for her. … She’s in a no-win situation.” 
The WBUR poll showed that New Hampshire independent voters did not generally like Trump. Nearly half of them favored Clinton while less than a quarter would vote for Trump. And a mid-August CBS poll of likely voters in New Hampshire hinted at the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t calculus for candidates who have to pick a side. When asked how much it matters to them that some Republican leaders and policy makers have not endorsed Trump, 32 percent said “a lot” while 35 percent said “not at all.” 
Ayotte has never shied away from openly criticizing Republicans she thinks have messed up or who are seen as too divisive. When Congressman Frank Guinta was fined by the FEC for receiving an illegal sum of $355,000 from his parents in 2010, and Guinta continued to deny wrongdoing, Ayotte was the senior-most Republican to call for his resignation. When the GOP caucus in the state legislature was poised to vote for the new Speaker of the House — between former Speaker Bill O’Brien, a controversial Tea-Party-era candidate many accused of being unilateral at best, authoritarian at worst, and the more moderate candidate Gene Chandler — Ayotte snubbed O’Brien when she sent a letter urging lawmakers to back Chandler.
So, holding back on criticisms of Trump, even voicing support in the name of party unity, may have gone against the instincts of the tough first-term senator.
“[I’m] comfortable saying I don’t think she’s a secret fan of Donald Trump. I’m sure she was wishing it was almost anyone but Trump who would wind up as the nominee,” Scala said.
Still, Scala said Ayotte’s decision to toe the line was probably the least bad option available. 
“The fact is that a sizeable portion of her base, a sizeable portion of Republicans, were with Donald Trump. So, what do you do in that situation? Do you basically forsake that part of the base and perhaps discourage them from voting… for you?”
While this strategy may have helped Ayotte’s favorability stay higher than Trump’s with 42 percent to his 29, this may be moot as she’s trailing Hassan especially among independents and women.
Ayotte’s challenger
Ultimately, Trump isn’t just a possible liability for Ayotte’s reelection chances; he’s a symptom of decades-old party divisions bubbling over. Another symptom is arguably a GOP primary challenger, in the form of former state Sen. Jim Rubens. 
The earliest signs of a challenge came last fall when a group of conservatives met with the goal of finding a candidate and building a coalition behind them to replace Ayotte in the primary. The group was frustrated with Ayotte for her moderate policy positions and votes on certain issues.
But Spiliotes said, historically speaking, high-stakes election years like this are usually the time when party members set aside ideological differences in favor of a more strategic choice. In other words, they vote for the candidate in their party more likely to win the general election. This year, at least for some, that thinking has not been a guiding force.
“For Ayotte, she’s a fairly popular incumbent inside her own party,” Scala said. “Jim Rubens is clearly trying to position himself as kind of the Donald Trump of this senate race. Unclear whether that’s working or not, also unclear if he’s going to be more than token opposition to Ayotte.”
Rubens may not be the most ideologically aligned candidate given his more liberal stances on issues like abortion or climate change, but he’s perhaps a more libertarian candidate. Still, unlike Ayotte, he’s expressed unequivocal support for Trump.
And Ayotte, despite this dissatisfaction from the right, has continued to make the case that she’s a “common sense conservative” and someone who can work across the aisle, in her campaign ads. If Rubens proves to be only token opposition, courting the independents will be the smarter approach.
General election strategy
In the final weeks before the election, assuming Ayotte is the Republican nominee for the Senate, Scala said she may take steps to position herself as a check on whoever becomes president. And there are already signs of this. 
In recent interviews and ads, Ayotte has highlighted her own criticisms of Trump while arguing Hassan wouldn’t do the same with Clinton.
“Kelly will stand up to do what’s right for New Hampshire regardless of who is in the White House, unlike Governor Hassan, who would be a rubber stamp for Hillary Clinton,” said Ayotte spokesperson Liz Johnson in an emailed statement.
The implication here is that Ayotte would also serve as a check against a Clinton presidency, which is seeming more likely.
Running as a check against a president from an opposing party who isn’t elected yet isn’t very common. Scala said the last case of its broad use was in 1996, when Republican nominee Bob Dole was losing badly to Bill Clinton, according to Scala.
And we might expect to see more of this “checks and balances” strategy if Trump’s recent attempts to tone down his immigration message relapse into more of the same alienating rhetoric that’s hurting him in the polls or if his chances of winning seem so long that Priebus follows through on his threat to refocus party efforts on the congressional races. 
Guinta’s war
Meanwhile, the 1st District Congressional GOP primary is fractured by many of the same factors that have pitted “establishment” party elites against “movement” conservatives.
Incumbent Frank Guinta is staring down a challenge by Republican businessman Rich Ashooh, a well-funded, popular party member with a more moderate message focused largely on fiscal issues. 
Guinta, on the other hand, was first elected during the Tea Party wave in 2010, a movement he was adept at benefitting from, according to Spiliotes. And he may seek to follow a similar strategy by riding the populist Trump wave.
In this respect, the 1st District primary can be seen as almost a mirror image of Ayotte’s primary. In this case, the incumbent openly supports Trump, while Ashooh, the challenger, has equivocated.
“Guinta has, much more so than Ayotte, said, ‘I support Trump.’ He doesn’t make any apologies about it, he doesn’t resort to half measures about it. … And it’s Ashooh who has kind of qualified and hedged about that so far,” Scala said. “Ashooh’s kind of taken this gray zone. He hasn’t become this anti-Trump candidate. He’s kind of just hoping the whole thing goes away.”
The source of Guinta’s challenge isn’t a disgruntled right wing, it’s an unhappy establishment. His sin was not being too moderate, but betraying the trust of his constituents, according to his Republican detractors, by being dishonest about his campaign finances. 
“Everybody kind of abandoned him when it first broke a while ago, but he’s just kind of put his head down and has been out there kind of doing his thing and trying to make the case that he’s still focused on New Hampshire first,” Spiliotes said.
He said Ashooh, a former BAE Systems executive, ran against Guinta and lost in 2010. But he sees Guinta’s FEC ruling and its aftermath as a weakness he can exploit.
However, Scala said the issue may have blown over for the voters. A late July survey by UNH showed Guinta’s net favorability rating rebounded somewhat from -22 percent in April to -17 percent. 
The same survey showed Ashooh’s biggest weakness is that voters still don’t know who he is. While his favorability was +8 percent, 74 percent of those asked didn’t know enough about him to make any judgments.
So political scientists are hesitant to place any bets on this race just yet. Still, as with other state races, the outcome of the GOP primary may prove inconsequential if Trump continues to lose ground to Clinton. If he ultimately loses, the smart money is on Democrats’ taking back those congressional seats. 

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