George F. Will: As New Hampshire goes, so goes the Senate?

George F. Will

George F. Will

MANCHESTER, N.H. — in 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt defeated Kansas’ Gov. Alfred Landon in 46 of the 48 states, thereby creating the jest, “As Maine goes, so goes Vermont.” Eight decades later, New England has gone from the Republicans’ last redoubt in a bad year to their least receptive region in any year. Its six states have made 36 decisions in the last six presidential elections and the score is Democrats 35, Republicans 1 — New Hampshire supported George W. Bush in 2000. Republicans hold just two of New England’s 21 congressional seats, and two of 12 Senate seats, those of Maine’s Susan Collins and New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte.

Just nine months ago — time flies when you’re having fun — Donald Trump won his first victory in this state’s primary. Ayotte could become an especially regrettable part of the collateral damage his campaign is doing to the party with which he is temporarily identified. But she probably will survive his undertow and win a second term, partly because she is almost everything people say they want in politics: She is neither old nor rich nor angry.

She is 48 and often finds life amusing, as she recently did concerning former Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh’s problem. He is trying to convince Indiana to return him as a senator to Washington, where he has lived and prospered since voluntarily leaving the Senate in 2011. When he was recently asked the address of his Indiana condominium, he was stumped. Ayotte, laughing, says, “I probably couldn’t tell you my address in Washington.” There she lives in a basement apartment, returning on weekends to New Hampshire, where her husband runs a small landscaping and snow removal business.

This year, New Hampshire has what has become an American rarity, a choice between two grown-ups. Ayotte is the state’s former attorney general. Her opponent, Maggie Hassan, 58, is ending her second term as governor. Both women have approximately 100 percent name recognition and benefit from what an Ayotte aide calls “three degrees of separation”: Almost everyone in this small state has, or knows someone who has, met or otherwise had contact with the two.

Which works to Ayotte’s advantage. She is running by running 5K races, bagging groceries, riding all-terrain vehicles in the woods and generally smothering the state with retail politics. Hassan, whose challenge is to give voters a reason to fire Ayotte, is relying heavily on negative ads, especially ones criticizing Ayotte’s path to her current position of refusing to vote for Trump.

But paid ads often do not dent “three degrees of separation” knowledge. Sixty-four percent of voters say Ayotte’s path to separation from Trump “makes no difference” to them. Last week, UMass Amherst/WBZ released a poll of likely voters, including those “leaning toward” a candidate, showed Ayotte with a 4-point lead. Which must reflect the fact that, in a survey of eight swing states, New Hampshire had the largest portion of voters (9.7 percent) intending to vote both for Clinton and for a Republican Senate candidate.

New Hampshire campaigning is costly because candidates must advertise on Boston television, which is watched by almost 85 percent of New Hampshire voters. Of the state’s 1.3 million residents, the 720,000 who will vote for senator are the targets of the $125 million — $173.61 per vote — that will be spent on the Senate contest by Nov. 8. Ayotte will be outspent on television by $20 million — by $10 million in the last two weeks — but in this politics-saturated state, broadcast political ads may be the equivalent of wallpaper — semi-seen but not really noticed.

For 36 years, the Senate seat Ayotte occupies has been held by representatives of a distinctive New Hampshire Republicanism. Warren Rudman for two terms and Judd Gregg for three brought flinty fiscal Puritanism to bear on the federal government’s mismanagement of its fisc. New Hampshire currently has a Democratic senator, a member of Congress from each party, and a close contest for governor, so were Ayotte to lose, the state could be entirely blue, which does not suit the prickly (“Live Free or Die”) and purple spirit of a state where 40 percent of voters are registered independents. In this year’s crowded New Hampshire Republican primary, Ohio’s Gov. John Kasich finished second to Trump. Today, only 17 percent of those who supported Kasich support Trump. The center-right of the Granite State seems likely to decide this race, giving rise to the saying, “As New Hampshire goes, so goes the Senate.”

Email: georgewill@washpost.com

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