Senator Kelly Ayotte was running hard in every sense of the word. With just two days left in her tight re-election bid in New Hampshire, Ayotte laced up her sneakers on Sunday and scurried through the rain and hail in Exeter, the town where the Republican Party was born in 1853.
Her Democratic challenger, incumbent Governor Maggie Hassan, was no slouch, either. Hassan was racing through New Hampshire, looking for votes in the dairy aisles of grocery stores, boosting the spirits inside campaign offices and joining Hillary Clinton and James Taylor for an evening rally.
As much as any race in the country, the New Hampshire contest for Senate was a reminder that the races below the White House race were hardly carbon copies of the Clinton clash with Donald Trump. Clinton’s coattails appeared to be lacking, and it’s entirely possible Clinton carries states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Nevada while Democratic Senate candidates lose.
If Clinton wins the White House, she will need to net four Senate seats for Democrats to flip control of the chamber.
It’s why many here in New Hampshire expect both the presidential and the Senate races to be close, as well as independent of each other. Split-ticket voting is not uncommon in the state, and voters here tend to favor candidates they know over party loyalty — hence Ayotte’s 50 retail stops in five days, and Hassan's 33 visits in three days.
“People of this state will look at each position on the ballot. That’s how they’ve always done it,” Ayotte said Sunday afternoon as she stopped in a North Hampton bar to court voters, one barstool at a time.
Hassan shared the uncertainty. “We always knew this race was going to be close,” she said as she talked with reporters in Derry a day earlier. But unlike Ayotte, Hassan is fully embracing her party’s nominee and sharing a get-out-the-vote operation under the same roofs.
Polls show Clinton with an advantage over Trump in this state, although the entire election will happen on Tuesday since there is no early voting in the state. That means anything can happen in the final 48 hours — as witnessed by the Sunday afternoon revelation that the FBI had once again decided against recommending the prosecution of Clinton over her emails. Clinton was heading here Sunday evening, and President Obama was slated to visit on Monday to boost her. Trump was scheduled to close out his campaign late Monday night with a raucous rally of his own.
But the Senate race is a true jump ball. Ayotte has polled slightly ahead of Hassan. Ayotte is running an aggressive campaign for a second term, and Hassan is a veteran campaigner, given the two-year terms of governor and, before that, in the state senate that she led. “It’s a way of life,” Hassan mused as she chuckled about the perma-campaign of New Hampshire politics.
Unlike other states, where voters have come to loathe both choices, New Hampshire residents genuinely seem to like both candidates. The nasty attacks haven’t gotten either very far, and the women have largely kept focused on each other's records over divisive rhetoric. And outside groups funding attacks have gotten little traction.
“They’re both very qualified, but I’m voting for the governor. I just have more agreement with her than with Senator Ayotte,” said Mary Kormanos, a Nashua resident who ran into Hassan as she took her campaign through the neighborhood grocery store. Like many in New Hampshire, Kormanos is looking forward to Wednesday, when the campaigns will be over. “It’s a horror story,” she said, holding feta in her hand.
Bruce Potvin, a 72-year-old Rye, N.H., voter, said he was sticking with Ayotte for fear of higher taxes under Democrats. But he said the race was tight, and maybe hinged on whether Trump drags down the Republican brand. “It’s pretty close,” said Potvin said. “It’s all going to trail Trump.” Trump could hurt his party nominees in the ways Clinton could not help hers.
Ayotte started her Sunday in a 5k race for veterans in miserable weather. “As long as there’s no lightning, you’re O.K., I guess,” she said. She then set out on a punishing political marathon of events that would keep her campaigning around the clock leading into Election Day. Manchester’s famous Red Arrow Diner at 1 a.m.; IHOP at 2 a.m.; Denny’s at 3 a.m.
Hassan was letting no grass grow underfoot, either, although she had not yet settled on a final itinerary. “We are always a very closely contested state,” Hassan said. “This is a very purple state.”