- Associated Press - Sunday, February 15, 2015

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan’s budget address Thursday outlined a plan that acknowledged New Hampshire’s tight revenues, the need to pay off costly lawsuits and the fact that there simply isn’t enough money to make everyone happy.

But the unspoken undercurrent of her address, and every major action she’ll take this year, is a topic Hassan has yet to discuss head-on: whether she’ll run for U.S. Senate in 2016 against Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte.

Hassan is widely considered the Democrats’ strongest candidate to take on Ayotte. Hassan’s spokesman said she won’t decide on a Senate run until after the state budget is signed, but the state Republican and Democratic parties are already acting as if the match-up is set.

The Democratic Party recently hired Hassan’s 2014 campaign spokesman and he’s been relentlessly attacking Ayotte. The state Republican Party, meanwhile, refers to Hassan not as governor but as “likely Senate candidate” and the National Republican Senatorial Committee sent out a release attacking Hassan’s state budget.

Her budget address, and the Republican reaction to it, further outlined the political battles likely to come if she enters the race.

She’s “trying to set herself up as someone who is fiscally prudent but holding to Democratic priorities and stopping the Republicans from what Democrats will describe as slashing and burning,” said Dante Scala, associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.

Hassan took few risks in her budget, crafting it without a broad-based tax or casino. She didn’t raid funds dedicated for specific purposes or force “back of the budget” cuts on agencies that let lawmakers avoid being specific about where to cut, two oft-used means of balancing New Hampshire’s budget. This approach now puts pressure on Republicans who don’t agree with her revenue sources to make cuts, propose other revenues or revert to the gimmicks.

“I have been specific and transparent in what I have chosen to fund - and in what I recognize that we simply can’t afford at this time. The Legislature should do the same,” Hassan said in her address.

By including money to continue the state’s version of Medicaid expansion when federal funding falls below 100 percent in 2017, funding another study of commuter rail and increasing mental health and substance abuse treatment, Hassan packed just enough progressive policies into her budget to keep Democrats happy.

Republicans are using the budget to attack Hassan as a tax-and-spend liberal, a message they used against her in her re-election bid. House and Senate leaders say her revenue projections are too rosy and that they likely won’t approve a 21-cent increase in the cigarette tax or 35 percent increase in motor vehicle registration fees.

Hassan and Ayotte are both well-liked by voters, with approval ratings over 50 percent. Hassan casts herself as a pragmatic leader who can work across the aisle to get things done, but she has no experience in foreign policy and major domestic issues such as immigration. Ayotte, who was elected to the Senate in 2010 in her first run for public office after being the state’s appointed attorney general, has made herself a leading voice on foreign policy. Ayotte’s office declined to comment on a potential campaign against Hassan.

“The biggest advantage that (Hassan) has is neither her popularity or how she’s positioned herself,” said Andy Smith, director of the UNH Survey Center. “The biggest advantage is she’s a Democrat in a relatively Democratic state.”

Presidential election years have recently favored Democrats in New Hampshire and the 2016 map favors the party more than it did in the 2014 midterms.

Ayotte, meanwhile, has the advantage of already understanding the biggest issues in Congress.

“She is seen as pretty much a rock star in the Republican party down in D.C.,” Smith said. “She’s going to be better prepared for what’s going to face her than Hassan is.”

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