- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 4, 2016

For years, Sen. Kelly Ayotte cast herself as a free-thinking voice for New Hampshire, chastising Republican firebrands who hurtled into the 2013 government shutdown without a clear escape plan while supporting conservative bids to defund Planned Parenthood over its abortion practice.

She served as New Hampshire’s appointed attorney general under Republican and Democratic governors and crossed party lines to support increased spending for opioid abuse.

The Republican senator will find out in November whether her independent streak is strong enough for voters as she faces off against Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, and against headwinds of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

Mr. Trump trails Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by an average of 9 percentage points in the state in the Real Clear Politics poll roundup, but Mrs. Ayotte is running neck and neck with Mrs. Hassan in a race that pits two well-known female leaders against each other.

“I think anyone who tries to predict what’s going to happen in this one is better off buying a Powerball ticket,” said Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics and Political Library at St. Anselm College.

Indeed, it is widely considered the most evenly matched Senate contest in a turbulent election cycle with Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton at the top of the ticket.

Ayotte appears to be running ahead of Trump in New Hampshire, but Trump is fairly far behind, which could drag Ayotte down,” said political analyst Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia. “Right now I’d rather be Hassan than Ayotte, and the only reason for that is the presidential race. We’re in an era where presidential results typically have a large impact down the ballot, and we’re seeing that in New Hampshire even though Ayotte has some crossover appeal.”

The Trump factor has been a near-constant thorn for down-ballot Republicans, though some have been able to escape the presidential contender’s pull.

In Ohio, where Mr. Trump is polling slightly behind Mrs. Clinton, Republican Sen. Rob Portman has managed to put a good bit of daylight between himself and his Democratic rival, former Gov. Ted Strickland.

In Pennsylvania, polling shows Mrs. Clinton leading by high single digits, while Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey is running about even with his Democratic challenger, Katie McGinty.

Ayotte is sort of in the middle at the moment,” said Jennifer Duffy, an editor at The Cook Political Report. “Portman appears to have escaped the Trump drag, while Toomey is getting pulled under by it. The jury is out on how Trump will impact Ayotte.”

Mrs. Ayotte has kept Mr. Trump at arm’s length. She chided him for sparring with the Muslim parents of a fallen U.S. solider and has withheld her endorsement, even though she plans to vote for the Republican.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee says Mrs. Ayotte’s “continued support for Donald Trump and his offensive and inappropriate comments on women don’t fare well with New Hampshire voters.”

Indeed, Democrats have recruited female challengers in seven competitive Senate races this cycle, a dynamic that syncs with Mrs. Clinton’s historic run.

The Hassan camp says it will win over women on the issues alone. The campaign points to Mrs. Ayotte’s vote to shift federal funds from Planned Parenthood to community health care centers and decries her bill to provide over-the-counter birth control as a “sham” designed to circumvent Obamacare’s contraception mandate on employers.

“While Gov. Maggie Hassan has always fought to protect a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions and to expand economic opportunity for women, Sen. Kelly Ayotte has consistently worked to undermine access to women’s health care and has voted against the economic interests of New Hampshire women and families,” Hassan spokeswoman Meira Bernstein said.

Political analysts note that women have tended to vote more Democratic than men since the Reagan era, no matter the race or gender of the candidates, so this race likely will be won by whoever can sway unaffiliated voters who make up a plurality in New Hampshire.

The Ayotte campaign sees an opening, noting that the incumbent has been able to stay competitive despite a string of Democratic attack ads tying the senator to Mr. Trump.

“Voters know that Kelly isn’t shy about calling out anyone, Republican or Democrat, about anything that’s not in New Hampshire’s best interest,” Ayotte campaign spokeswoman Liz Johnson said.

They also argue that Mrs. Hassan’s pairing with Mrs. Clinton isn’t working as planned.

Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, trounced Mrs. Clinton in New Hampshire’s Democratic primary by 22 percentage points in February.

Since then, Mrs. Clinton has been dogged by questions about her State Department emails and the Clinton Foundation, and Mrs. Hassan declined three times in mid-August to answer a CNN reporter who asked if Mrs. Clinton was honest or trustworthy.

The campaign clarified the next day that Mrs. Hassan does, in fact, consider Mrs. Clinton trustworthy.

Mrs. Ayotte’s campaign argues that instances like that prove the sitting governor “would be a rubber stamp for Hillary Clinton and the Washington Democrats who are flooding the state with attack ads on her behalf.”

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