Politics

Ground Games Could Make Difference in Tight New Hampshire Race

Both parties think their operations will put them over the edge

Sen. Kelly Ayotte talks with former state Rep. David Scott at the Seacoast Republican Women's Chilifest in Stratham, N.H., on Saturday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

STRATHAM, N.H. — Sen. Kelly Ayotte has called for Rep. Frank C. Guinta to resign. And she's condemned some of the more controversial statements by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

But she now finds herself sandwiched between those two candidates on the GOP ballot. And that gives her even more of an incentive to run a campaign independent of other Republicans on the ticket. 

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Things look different on the Democratic side in New Hampshire, where the party up and down the ticket is more united in its messaging, and is touting an unprecedented coordinated campaign this year.  

Ayotte's race against Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan — the only Senate battle to pit two women from opposing parties against each other — is among the tightest in the country. And with just 54 days until Election Day, each side's ground operations could be what makes the difference.

The Democrats' coordinated campaign, "New Hampshire Together," has opened 25 field offices — more than ever before. It's an extension of the coordinated campaign in 2014 that the party credits for Hassan's and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen's wins in an otherwise bad year for Democrats.

New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, left, Democratic candidate for Senate, greets Roberta Gallant during an event in the state capital Concord on Friday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, left, Democratic candidate for Senate, greets Roberta Gallant during an event in Concord on Friday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The coordinated campaign allows Granite State Democrats up and down the ticket to share resources, which has historically made a difference turning out voters.

In 2012, former Gov. John H. Sununu predicted Romney would win New Hampshire. "I sat at my desk and chuckled," New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Raymond Buckley said. "From what he was looking at, yeah. But what he didn’t understand was the magnitude of our ground game," Buckley said. Obama won the state by more than 5 points.

A different Republican operation

Republicans operatives around the country have bemoaned the fact that the Trump campaign isn't investing in ground operations to support down-ballot candidates. 

"Kelly has to organize, fund and staff her own get-out-the-vote efforts and voter ID program," said former New Hampshire GOP chairman Fergus Cullen, a leader in the "Never Trump" movement. 

[Kelly Ayotte Easily Outruns Primary Opponents]

Ayotte has invested in her own ground operation for the past 18 months. 

But the Republican National Committee now has 49 staffers in New Hampshire. Including trained volunteers, the RNC's operation in the state is larger than it was in 2012. With the Senate and gubernatorial primaries now over, there's expected to be more coordination between the Ayotte campaign and the party.

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Democrats tout the number of offices and paid staffers they have, but one Republican familiar with Ayotte's operation suggested that Republicans' "untraditional" efforts this year in the state are reminiscent of the original Barack Obama playbook and more effective than the "big box headquarters" they've traditionally relied upon.

"Ayotte's looks and feels like some of the Democratic organizing campaigns in terms of making a commitment to college students and door-knocking," he said. 

Her own race

Structural coordination is one thing, but when it comes to her campaign message, Ayotte is sticking by herself.

"I'm running my own race," she said when asked about Trump.

For one, she's invited her own surrogates to the state.

At a "barn hall" in Kingston with Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst last weekend, Ayotte said the setting reminded her of Ernst's highly-praised 2014 spot, "Squeal," in which she talked about castrating hogs and cutting pork in Washington.

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There were no pigs in this barn. And instead of the infamous campaign barn jacket, the two senators opted for almost-matching blue blazers and black pumps. "New Hampshire barns are a lot cleaner," Ernst joked.

Ernst and Ayotte touted their records on national security issues at a Kingston "barn hall" last week. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Ernst and Ayotte touted their records on national security issues at a Kingston "barn hall" last week. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Ernst has been much more sympathetic to Trump, but neither senator talked about the presidential race here. The focus was squarely on Hassan. (Ayotte's campaign manager ran Ernst's campaign.) 

Wherever Ayotte goes, she brings up the Democratic outside ads attacking her. She denounced the Democrats' coordinated operation in the state as just another instrument of what she called Hassan's "Washington-centric" campaign. 

Media saturation 

Unlike Ayotte, Hassan has endorsed her party's presidential nominee. But Hassan and Clinton haven't always been on the same page.

The governor disagrees with Obama's plan to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, for example. And in a now infamous CNN interview, Hassan failed to say Clinton was trustworthy. ("I didn't give my greatest answer," she told Roll Call.)

Hassan greets Bodhi Bhattarai, 2, during an event at the State House in Concord on Friday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Hassan greets Bodhi Bhattarai, 2, during an event at the State House in Concord on Friday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Hassan's been the target of outside spending, too, and her message about Ayotte is much the same as the senator's hit on her.

Ayotte's support for Trump, Hassan said in an interview in Manchester, shows "she is more interested in pleasing her party and that party’s corporate special interest backers."

Which is why, with so many attacks flying back and forth, each side's ground operation may really be what matters. 

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"Media is out there, media matters, all that," Ayotte said. "But the grass-roots campaigning is something that I think will be the difference in this race."

"You have to get out and see a lot of people, shake a lot of hands," the senator said. Through a combination of campaign and official events last weekend, Ayotte shook a lot of hands. In her official capacity as a senator, she greeted runners and their four-legged friends at a 5k race. The next day, she was climbing 100 stairs with firefighters at the Manchester 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb. Hassan has been doing a lot of hand-shaking, too. And like Ayotte, she has the ability to meet people in her official capacity, like she did last week at the launch of a new food bank production facility. The advantage for Hassan, of course, is that as a governor, her official duties keep her in the state, in front of voters.

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