Why Senate control could ride on this tight New Hampshire race

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New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan speaks at the No Labels Problem Solver Convention in Manchester, New Hampshire October 12, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder - RTS43ZV

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JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first, we head to New Hampshire, where a tight race between Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte and her Democratic challenger, the current governor, Maggie Hassan, will help determine which party controls the U.S. Senate.

Lisa Desjardins has the story.

LISA DESJARDINS: The start of fall in New Hampshire. Along with the changing leaves this year, the Granite State is home to something else special, a contest between two respected and popular Senate candidates.

Republican U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte, out gathering votes at an apple festival this weekend, is defending her seat. Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan, rallying volunteers, is hoping to win it. Polls show it is a toss-up race, a sharp partisan fight, even as both brandish they are not.

GOV. MAGGIE HASSAN, Democratic Senate Candidate: We passed a bipartisan Medicaid expansion program. We froze in-state tuition at our university system, and actually lowered it at our community colleges.

SEN. KELLY AYOTTE, Republican Senate Candidate: I have one of the most bipartisan records in the Senate. I have certainly been called a problem-solver by the independent group No Labels, who I have worked with.

LISA DESJARDINS: Both are former lawyers, both known for their work ethic. Neither is flashy. But Hassan charges Ayotte is too conservative for the state, in lockstep with the GOP on defunding Planned Parenthood, overturning Roe vs. Wade, and on guns.

GOV. MAGGIE HASSAN: Whether it’s standing with the gun lobby, rather than expanding background checks so that terrorists can’t get guns online and at gun shows, or whether it’s standing against a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions, those decisions of Senator Ayotte, her positions and her votes, really have pulled us backwards.

LISA DESJARDINS: Ayotte stands by her position to ban most abortions as a matter of faith, adding she supports access to more contraception. She attacks Hassan on taxes, a core issue here.

SEN. KELLY AYOTTE: In terms of taxes, I’m someone who focuses on low taxes, a better tax climate for individuals and small businesses. She has long record of increasing taxes, not only on small businesses, but on campgrounds, registration fees on the people of New Hampshire.

LISA DESJARDINS: Hassan’s tax record is complicated. She cut taxes for some, but raised them for others, citing urgent needs like fighting the opioid crisis.

Meanwhile, both candidates are keeping their party’s presidential nominees at arm’s length. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were both in New Hampshire last week, but neither Hassan nor Ayotte joined them on stage. Ayotte has said she’s voting for Trump, but not endorsing him.

But how do the important people, the voters, see this?

Jim Jalbert runs a thriving family-owned bus company, C&J Bus, in Portsmouth. Jalbert is a registered Republican who doesn’t like Trump. But between Ayotte and Hassan:

JIM JALBERT, C&J Bus Lines: If you look at the two of them, they’re both really good people.

LISA DESJARDINS: Jim has a lot at stake. He’s worried about passing on his business to a third generation, his sons. He’s worried about taxes and America’s crumbling roads.

JIM JALBERT: I don’t vote for a person based on a single issue. I vote for a person based on what they’re going to do in total. And I look at the two of them, and I think that Ayotte, with her demeanor and her style, will probably do more for New Hampshire.

LISA DESJARDINS: But Hassan and Democrats would love a so-called Trump drag on down-ballot races, especially in a place like New Hampshire

Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise institute explains.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: If the Democrats can’t win in a purple state with a large number of highly educated voters who are turned off by Donald Trump, they’re going to have a much more steeply uphill battle in accomplishing the goal of winning the Senate.

LISA DESJARDINS: Let’s look at the Senate battle map.

To take over the Senate, Democrats need to gain four Senate seats if Clinton is president and her V.P. can break a tie, or five seats if Trump wins. Democrats have a big advantage. Look at the 10 most competitive Senate seats. Nine are red, held by Republicans. What is Democrats’ best chance at a Senate takeover?

Well, sources in both parties believe they will pick up Illinois and Wisconsin. That would be two. In North Carolina and Missouri, incumbent Republicans are on the ropes. If they lose? That’s two more Democratic pick-ups, for four total. But Democrats may lose Nevada, or the presidency, so they need to pick up at least one more seat from a toss-up state like New Hampshire.

That battle is playing out at the 140-year-old Deerfield Fair. It’s a jumble of food and politics.

Andrew Robertson is splitting his ticket, voting Clinton for president, but for Senate?

ANDREW ROBERTSON: Yes, I think I’m probably likely to vote for Senator Ayotte, in large part because of her experience.

LISA DESJARDINS: Others are an equal mix.

CAROL WYNNE: I really admire Maggie Hassan. She appears to have incredible work ethic and a great heart.

BOB BARTOLUCCI: Unenthusiastically, I am supporting Ayotte.

LISA DESJARDINS: Why unenthusiastically?

BOB BARTOLUCCI: Well, basically because Ayotte has not been as supportive to the Republican nominee as she should be.

LISA DESJARDINS: Enthusiastic support from the Senate will be key to passing the next president’s agenda, likely to include several Supreme Court nominations.

Norm Ornstein:

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: This year, I really do believe that the battle for control of the Senate is very close in importance to that battle for control of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

LISA DESJARDINS: Those high stakes have meant sky-high spending here in the Granite State, and not just from the candidates, but from dozens of outside groups.

They have flooded the airwaves with tens of millions of dollars in ads. And that’s in a state with just over one million people. It’s by far the most spending per person of any Senate race.

Ads from pro- and anti-gun groups, from Planned Parenthood, from big-money groups on the left and right all creating an airwaves war, as two popular candidates try to outperform their parties’ presidential nominees.

This makes voter contact, in this retail politics state, pivotal. And, there, Ayotte has a challenge: Usually, Senate and presidential campaigns coordinate, but not so with Republicans this year. Ayotte is on her own to identify and get out her voters.

All this means, right now, it’s any woman’s race.

For the “PBS NewsHour” I’m Lisa Desjardins in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

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