As Intraparty Divisions Fade, New Hampshire Gears Up for Next Competitive Race

With presidential campaigns emptying out, New Hampshire is getting ready for a competitive Senate race.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Presidential campaign signs are piling up at New Hampshire's transfer stations (more colloquially known as dumps), their temporary place of rest until called up for their next mission — a deployment to Massachusetts' or Maine's nominating contests, perhaps, or a repeat Granite State tour in November.  

After the first-in-the-nation primary, public works crews pluck yard signs from the state's highway medians and deliver them to transfer stations, where campaigns can retrieve them. With candidates now long gone for sunnier states, their entourages and the national media flock to the next stop on the primary trail, leaving Manchester quiet, save for the local chatter about how well Donald Trump performed Tuesday night and what a bad couple of days Florida Sen. Marco Rubio had.  

However, New Hampshire voters are famously politically engaged, and this isn't the end for them. Once packed up and sent on its way, the presidential infrastructure will give way to one of the nation's most competitive Senate races. Polls have showed Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan nearly tied in a race that's expected to be a nail-biter until the end.  

But first, the respective parties have to get back on the same page after a surprisingly divisive Democratic primary and a Republican primary that saw a record number of contenders. "As much as hosting the first in the nation primary is a blessing, it also means the activist base has just spent six months pitted against each other," said former New Hampshire GOP chairman Fergus Cullen. "There’s no question there’s hurt feelings for the first week weeks after primaries," said Ryan Williams, a Republican consultant with years of experience in New Hampshire. " You end up working against your friends and colleagues, but after a while those feelings subside and people come together." Republicans were eager to tap into Democrats' divisions Wednesday, painting Hillary Clinton's 20-point loss as a sign of Hassan's political weakness. "Last night’s results prove Governor Hassan couldn’t deliver a pizza let alone a presidential primary for her preferred candidate," said Williams. Of course, Clinton's loss to a contender from the neighboring state wasn't Hassan's fault, New Hampshire Republican David Carney said, but it wasn't as if she had the resources to help the former secretary of state either, he added.  Democrats, however, aren't worried. Sanders' team comprised members of both Sen. Jeanne Shaheen's and Hassan's orbits, and in 2008, Shaheen won her Senate election despite a divisive presidential primary between Clinton and President Barack Obama. Democrats fully expect Sanders' supporters to rally behind Hassan, who praised him in a Tuesday night statement. "No matter what the ultimate outcome of the nominating process, Senator Sanders has importantly voiced the frustration of many Granite Staters who know corporate special interests in Washington are holding our families and small businesses back," the governor said.  

While Sanders' blowout emboldened Republicans, Trump's first primary victory played into Democrats' long-standing strategy of trying to tie vulnerable GOP incumbents to him. "Donald Trump has done nothing but cause anxiety and heartburn for Senate incumbents and candidates since his launch, and the increasing likelihood of his nomination is another complication for the vulnerable GOP majority," Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Communications Director Sadie Weiner said Wednesday. "There’s no better case than New Hampshire’s own Kelly Ayotte, whose very public struggle with a Trump nomination undermines her candidacy daily."  

Although Ayotte has repeatedly said she'll support the eventual nominee, she has denounced some of Trump's more egregious comments — his call to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the country, for example — and she's questioned Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's tactics in the Senate. But she's held off on making an endorsement, saying she'd wait for the people of New Hampshire  to cast their votes.  

"She was very smart to stay out of the race and not to get involved either way," Carney said. In recent months, she's sought to stake out moderate positions on some issues, like the administration's clean power plan. "Kelly will campaign as Kelly," Williams added. "She's a unique brand."  

Trump's 35 percent victory means that most voters in the Republican primary didn't vote for him. But add Cruz's 15 percent to Trump's total, Cullen said, "and you're close to 50 percent of the Republican primary electorate." "I  do think most Bernie supporters would be OK supporting Clinton. That's not true on the Republican side," he said, suggesting that that 50 percent who voted for Trump or Cruz could energize  talk of taking Ayotte on in a primary. Still, Republicans and Democrats in the state said they'd be surprised if a credible threat materialized. "Scott Brown hadn’t lived in the state for more than six months, and they couldn't find a credible [primary] challenger" to him, Williams said of Shaheen's 2014 opponent. One factor that will help heal internecine divisions in both parties is time, said Clinton supporter Kathy Sullivan, former New Hampshire Democratic Party chairwoman and Democratic national committeewoman. The Senate primary isn't until Sept. 13.  

"It’s always harder for some people to recover than others, but for most people, they wake up and say, 'OK, it’s time for the next election,'" Sullivan said. Contact Pathé at  simonepathe@rollcall.com  and follow her on Twitter at  @sfpathe . Related: