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Crowded Presidential Field Pushes Congressional Races Out of Limelight

Ayotte speaks with local media outlets as she arrives for a tour of Mikrolar Inc., a robotics company in Hampton, N.H. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Members of Congress running for re-election in early presidential states are learning a lesson: It's hard to get attention when the circus is in town.  

Over the five-week August recess, an opportunity for members to spend time at home to connect with constituents, members like GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte have had the unique challenge of fighting for voters' attention as 17 Republican and five Democratic candidates traipsed through her turf.  

Roll Call on the Road logo Many voters in New Hampshire said they aren't paying attention to House and Senate candidates at home just yet.  

"I don’t follow the Senate race," Virginia Morgan, a Democrat from Gorham, told CQ Roll Call before a Sen. Bernard Sanders town hall last month in New Hampshire's North Country. "I’ve been so wrapped up in the presidential stuff going on that I haven’t even followed much of anything else."  

"I know more about presidential elections and things like that," said one older woman who declined to give her name as she packed up her belongings after a morning on Hampton beach.  

Operatives from both sides of the aisle say getting the public's attention for House and Senate races in early presidential primary is a tough sell.  

Adding to the woes is a shrinking local press corps in states like New Hampshire and Iowa, where the reporters left are forced to make a choice to cover the historic number of candidates with local politics, or the local races — a fact that sometimes leaves down-ballot candidates in the dust.  

"The biggest problem isn’t that you're competing with the presidential race, the bigger problem is that we don’t have the press coverage we used to have because of the cutbacks in the media," said Kathy Sullivan, a former New Hampshire Democratic Party chairwoman. "It’s unfortunate, it’s sad."  

An Iowa GOP operative said congressional candidates in the Hawkeye State face a similar dilemma.  

"The [Des Moines] Register is strapped so thin on covering all the different presidentials, it’s tough to get them at events," the operative said.  

Ayotte — whose official and campaign teams are well-respected among the New Hampshire media — is adept at garnering local media at her official appearances. A handful of local outlets trailed Ayotte as she embarked on a tour of several manufacturing businesses in the Sea Coast region of her state last month, which earned her positive headlines that can pay dividends down the line.  

Still, Ayotte said folks in New Hampshire are largely focused on the presidential race — especially since Democrats have yet to field a challenger in her Granite State Senate contest.  

"There’s no doubt that it’s full-blown political season in New Hampshire right now," Ayotte told CQ Roll Call between stops on the tour. "We have governors, senators, businessmen, you name it, they’re doing town halls and the media is of course focusing very much on the presidential, which you would expect."  

Rep. Frank C. Guinta echoed a similar sentiment after a roundtable at a Portsmouth-based IT company on cyber security in August.  

"I try to remind people of the things I do that are New Hampshire-centric. But you can't help but get the questions that a lot of the presidentials are getting. A lot of people right now are focused on the presidential," Guinta said.  

Guinta said it doesn't stop him from meeting constituents in small group settings, something he said he hopes pays dividends later on.  

Though members such as Ayotte and Guinta will fight for attention over the next five months, they'll eventually come into focus once the caucus and primary wraps up in February. After that, the national media will largely go home and the din from the presidential primary will fade to the rearview.  

But until then, they'll have to vie for the attention of voters like Steve Schmidt, a New Hampshire Democrat and Sanders supporter.  

"Most of the chatter is about the presidential race," Schmidt told CQ Roll Call at a Sanders rally last month. "It’s more fun."  

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