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N.H. Democrats Prep Kelly Ayotte Challenge

Ayotte is a top target of Democrats in 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

New Hampshire is set to play a far more pivotal role in deciding Senate control next cycle than it did in the midterms.  

In 2016, Granite State Democrats are sizing up GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte for a seat vital to winning back the majority. The Republican tide that resulted in a nine-seat Senate gain nearly crested New Hampshire, where Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen held off a well-funded challenge from former Sen. Scott P. Brown by just 4 points. Combined with the possible Senate candidacy of two-term Gov. Maggie Hassan in a presidential cycle, Shaheen's ability to hold on despite the midterm headwinds has Democrats in the state feeling an extra dose of optimism about their chances against Ayotte — who Republicans say is a formidable incumbent.  

“We withstood the Republican national wave, so there’s a good feeling that in a presidential election year — where lately New Hampshire has been leaning and voting Democratic up and down the ballot — we really have an opportunity in 2016 to take that Senate seat and elect someone who we think will be more in tune with New Hampshire values,” said Kathy Sullivan, a Democratic National Committee member and longtime state party leader.  

New Hampshire is one of about a half-dozen states President Barack Obama won and in which Republicans are defending Senate seats next cycle. Democrats need a net gain of five seats to ensure a majority.  

Ayotte won her first bid for elected office in the GOP wave year of 2010. But in a state known for its swinginess and the biennial flipping of its two congressional districts, Ayotte beat then-Rep. Paul Hodes by 23 points.  

In 2016, the first-term senator will be seeking re-election within the context of a presidential contest. With New Hampshire, as always, hosting the first primaries in the race for the White House, the resulting ripples could impact the Senate race.  

The state has a tradition of swinging, but Democratic presidential nominees have won its electoral votes in five of the past six elections, with George W. Bush in 2000 as the lone GOP victory in the last two decades.  

“I think [Ayotte] appreciates the challenge ahead of her,” New Hampshire Republican consultant Ryan Williams said. “2010 is very different from 2016. But she’s a very popular, bipartisan senator who has earned the trust of Granite State voters, and Republicans are very confident in her ability to get re-elected.”  

Ayotte’s voting record became progressively more bipartisan over her first four years in the Senate, according to her party unity scores in CQ’s Voting Studies . After voting with Republicans on partisan votes 97 percent of the time in 2011, that number dropped to 86 percent, 82 percent and then 74 percent in the three years that followed.  

Williams said Ayotte has a political operation in place and ready to roll as soon as the campaign gets started. She is also ramping up financially, banking $1.9 million as of the end of September.  

“I think she is preparing and is prepared to run an aggressive campaign,” said Brooks Kochvar, who managed Ayotte’s 2010 campaign. “I know Democrats say, ‘Obama won the state, so the state’s in play.’ But the reality is Sen. Ayotte was a very popular attorney general and has been a very popular senator, and it’s because she’s done a lot to help the state.”  

The person most often mentioned as a likely Democratic challenger is Hassan, who was just re-elected to a second two-year gubernatorial term. Hassan would follow in the recent footsteps of other New Hampshire governors who made the leap to the Senate, including Shaheen and Republican former Sen. Judd Gregg.  

Hassan hasn’t revealed her intentions publicly. CQ Roll Call asked a spokesman in the governor's office whether Hassan is considering running for Senate in 2016. In response, Hassan press secretary William Hinkle issued a lengthy statement touting the governor's work.

"Governor Hassan loves serving as Governor of New Hampshire and is grateful that the people of New Hampshire have entrusted her to continue working with all Granite Staters to maintain the state’s status as one of the safest, healthiest and most livable states in the nation. The Governor remains focused on standing up for the priorities of the people of New Hampshire, and she will continue working to bring people together to reach bipartisan solutions that support job-creating businesses, expand middle class opportunities and keep New Hampshire’s economy moving in the right direction."
Hassan is already being included in head-to-head polling with Ayotte. A New England College automated survey of registered voters on Dec. 1 found Ayotte ahead 48 percent to 43 percent.  

Other names floating in Democratic circles as potential candidates include former Gov. John Lynch and Rep. Anne McLane Kuster. When asked in the Capitol last week whether she was thinking about her options for 2016, including running for Senate, Kuster said, “Not yet,” before dashing into an elevator.  

While Ayotte’s challenger remains unknown, the state Democratic Party has increased the number of field staff positions available and is currently hiring to have them in place by the spring, Chairman Ray Buckley said. They’ll help organize for the presidential, Senate, gubernatorial and congressional races in a state ready to once again be at the center of national politics.  

Emily Cahn contributed to this report. Related Stories: Surviving a Saturday in the Senate A Republican Senator's Missile Defense Wish List Post-Election Club for Growth Endorses 6 Senators for 2016 Script Will Be Flipped in 2016 Senate Majority Battle The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.