MANCHESTER, N.H. — Watching Sen. Kelly Ayotte campaign for re-election in New Hampshire, you wouldn’t always know she’s a Republican.
She highlights her support for a plan by President Barack Obama’s administration to cut carbon emissions that Republicans loathe, and she talks up bipartisanship, at times not even mentioning her own party. Although she’s in line with the GOP in cutting federal funds for Planned Parenthood, Ayotte focuses her women’s health message on increasing access to over-the-counter birth control and mammograms. Running in 5Ks and helping take out trash at a town dump, Ayotte tries to project an image of an average mom rather than the ideologue that Democratic challenger Gov. Maggie Hassan paints her as.
“I don’t assume one party has all the answers,” Ayotte declares in a television ad that aired last month.
The final weeks of the campaign will test whether Ayotte’s message is working as Hassan readies a fresh round of attacks designed to put Ayotte back in the Republican box along with GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump. Two new ads from Hassan hit Ayotte for voting against Planned Parenthood funding and currying favor with drug companies and the billionaire Koch brothers. The Koch-affiliated Americans for Prosperity is not airing ads on Ayotte’s behalf this year because of some of her positions, but David and Julia Koch as well as Koch Industries’ political action committee contributed a combined $17,300 to Ayotte in 2015, federal records show.
Ayotte faces the added challenge of Trump. In an often-derided, convoluted explanation, she says she plans to vote for him but will not formally endorse him. Hassan consistently challenges Ayotte’s national security credentials by saying Trump would be a dangerous holder of the nation’s nuclear codes. Asked twice Monday whether she felt Trump would be a steady commander in chief, Ayotte failed to give a straight answer.
“Well, I think that whoever’s elected president, we’re going to trust them with all the responsibilities of commander in chief, absolutely,” she said.
But even as polls show Democrat Hillary Clinton leading Trump, Ayotte has kept her race with Hassan tight. Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren plans to campaign for Hassan this weekend, a boost from the liberal favorite. Hassan’s two most recent television ads deliver common Democratic lines of attack, while Hassan’s positive ads also appear aimed at reaching independent voters who focus less on party identification.
Speaking to the camera in a recent ad, Hassan plays up signing a state budget without a sales or income tax and working with “anyone and everyone” to create a better business environment.
“A new senator, making fiscal responsibility work for you,” a narrator says, never mentioning Hassan’s party ID.
Beyond the television advertisements, Ayotte and Hassan take somewhat different approaches to greeting voters on the trail. Through her duties as governor, Hassan regularly comes face to face with voters, and she frequently attends Democrat volunteer events. Ayotte’s campaign, meanwhile, works aggressively to disseminate clips of Ayotte’s less traditional campaign stops, such as riding ATVs through the mud or taking a turn in a dunk tank at a local event.
Some voters appreciate Ayotte’s approach.
“I think she’s down to earth,” Republican voter Chris Koellmer said after casting her primary ballot last week.
Ayotte’s campaign plans to spend $11 million on voter contact efforts through November. Much of that goes toward traditional television advertising, but the campaign is also putting a laser-like focus on swaying voters online. They’re targeting 200,000 to 300,000 voters — roughly 20 to 30 percent of the state’s electorate — based on specific issues, including women’s health, Social Security and Medicare, and the state’s opioid crisis. Hassan’s campaign didn’t provide a comparable spending figure.
One online clip, for example, shows a constituent talking about how Ayotte helped her recover from identity theft. Another shows Ayotte speaking to the camera about her work to pass legislation aimed at combating heroin and opioid abuse, a top issue to voters in New Hampshire.
Still, not every voter is convinced by Ayotte’s — or Hassan’s — messaging.
“Kelly Ayotte is bought and paid for,” voter Elliot Konner said after casting a ballot in the state’s Democratic primary, then added that he didn’t plan to vote for Hassan, either.
This story has been corrected to show that while the Koch-affiliated Americans for Prosperity is not airing ads on Ayotte’s behalf this year, David and Julia Koch and the Koch Industries political action committee contributed to Ayotte’s campaign in 2015.