To get a sense of just how hard it is to be a Republican in a down-ticket race this election, consider the fate of Kelly Ayotte. The junior senator from New Hampshire was first elected in 2010 and is running for a second term against the current Democratic governor, Maggie Hassan. Donald Trump’s nomination presented her with a dilemma: standing too close to him would turn away moderate voters in a purple state, while running away would cost her with Republican voters. Her dilemma is welcome news for Hillary Clinton – New Hampshire is one of the Democrats’ target for the upper house, where a net gain of five seats could leave the party in control.
A single moment during the recent televised senatorial debate showed how hard it is for Ayotte to keep up the balancing act. Asked whether she considered her party’s nominee to be a good example for the state’s children, Ayotte half-heartedly replied, ‘certainly there are many role models that we have and I believe he can serve as president’. To make matters worse she withdrew the remarks the next day. Trump has been no help either: he publicly branded Ayotte ‘weak’ back in August.
Canvassing in New Hampshire allows you to see Trump’s America and Clinton’s America side by side. The state has suffered from many of the same shocks that have shaken blue-collar communities across the country. Incomes have barely risen here since 2009, the terrible epidemic of opioid addiction has hit hard, and the young adult population has fallen dramatically as many move away in search of better prospects. In the suburbs of Manchester you can find ‘Hillary for Prison’ signs almost as easily as you can find registered Republicans ready to vote Clinton this month. The ‘live free or die’ spirit of the state may be a cliché but it is often visible on the doorstep. Many voters either indicate polite uninterest or active boredom with the whole election, and local Democratic organisers know that at least 15 per cent of the state’s voters will not make up their minds until election day.
This is why New Hampshire has a tendency to throw a wrench in the works of American politics. As the first primary state it has delivered some of the most dramatic episodes in presidential politics. It was here that Bill Clinton became the ‘Comeback Kid’ in 1992, and where Hillary Clinton first fought back against Barack Obama in 2008. It was also where Trump moved to the top of the field for the Republican nomination.
One visit in particular to the state sticks in my mind. On a freezing evening in February I watched Clinton and Bernie Sanders take turns addressing a huge gathering of Democratic party supporters. It was clear by then that Clinton was going to lose the state’s primary, and lose badly. And yet, over a wall of hostile noise from the Sanders supporters, she continued to press her case. Looking back it is a reminder of just how long and gruelling the road to the White House has been – and how ready everyone is for the whole thing to be over.
Charlie Samuda is a former adviser to the Labour party and is studying at the Harvard Kennedy School. He tweets at @CharlieSamuda
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