Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s independent streak was put to the test Monday in the first televised debate of a neck-and-neck New Hampshire race that could determine party control of the Senate.
The showdown with Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan came on the heels of a tumultuous week for GOP ticket-topper Donald Trump, who lashed out at his critics after an uneven debate performance on the presidential stage and a bombshell New York Times report that said a $916 million business loss in 1995 could have allowed him to duck federal income taxes for 18 years.
Pressed on the mogul’s well-documented refusal to release his latest returns, Ms. Ayotte took a Solomonic route from the debate stage, saying Mr. Trump should opt for disclosure, “but obviously that’s up to him.”
She then pivoted to the tax code itself, saying Mr. Trump’s arrangement is a “great example” of why Congress should pass tax reform.
“It needs to be totally re-evaluated to make sure it’s fair,” she said in the debate aired by the NECN channel from New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire.
Ms. Ayotte has refused to endorse Mr. Trump but says she plans to vote for him. That conflict was on display from the debate stage, where she struggled at first to say whether she’d call Mr. Trump a role model, before concluding she could.
“I think that certainly there are many role models that we have, and I believe he can serve as president, so absolutely I would do that,” she said, adding later she would “stand up” to Mr. Trump as necessary.
Ms. Hassan said that wasn’t good enough, since Ms. Ayotte still planned to cast her ballot for the GOP nominee.
“At the end of the day, she is still saying she is going to vote to put Donald Trump in the situation room with access to the nuclear codes,” Ms. Hassan said.
Ms. Ayotte is among vulnerable Senate Republicans who’ve kept Mr. Trump at an arm’s length, though some have done better than others in escaping a downward pull.
In Ohio, where Mr. Trump leads Mrs. Clinton by single digits, Republican Sen. Rob Portman has managed to pull away from former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat.
In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, where polls show Mrs. Clinton leading by a few points, Republican Sen. Pat Toomey is about even with his Democratic challenger, Katie McGinty.
Real Clear Politics’ poll averages give Ms. Ayotte an edge of less than 2 percentage points, though recent numbers from WBUR 90.9 FM radio suggest Ms. Hassan’s fortunes have lifted alongside Hillary Clinton’s, and that she might even enjoy a slight edge right now.
“I suspect the race will remain tight. Both have high name recognition, electoral successes and are running turbocharged campaigns with an infusion of outside money in a swing state,” said Peter Ubertaccio, an associate professor of politics at Stonehill College in Massachusetts.
For his part, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to talk about Mr. Trump’s downballot impact on the GOP’s ability to defend what’s effectively a 54-46 majority — two independents caucus with Democrats — though he likened the New Hampshire race and several others to a “knife fight in a phone booth.”
“We’ve got 24 members up. They’ve only got 10,” the Kentucky Republican said before skipping town for the election break last week. “It’s pretty obvious this was going to be a really challenging cycle for us.”
Andrew Smith, an associate professor of politics at the University of New Hampshire, said his state is Democrat-leaning enough to give Ms. Hassan about a 3 percentage point bump, though Ms. Ayotte should get an equal boost as the incumbent, “so it’s a wash.”
“Ayotte has separated herself pretty effectively from Trump,” he said. “However, Clinton is just about as unpopular as Trump, and Hassan is joined at the hip with the Clinton campaign, so it’s more difficult for her to gain separation.”
To that end, Ms. Ayotte repeatedly accused Ms. Hassan on Monday of being in “lockstep” with Mrs. Clinton’s positions.
Debate moderators also pointed to a CNN interview from mid-August, when Ms. Hassan declined three times in mid-August to answer a CNN reporter who asked if Mrs. Clinton was “honest” or “trustworthy,” amid questions about the former secretary of state’s use of private email during her tenure in the Obama administration.
“I certainly didn’t give my best answer,” Ms. Hassan said at the debate, which veered from differences over support for Planned Parenthood to questions about gun control and the Republican blockade of Judge Merrick Garland, President Obama’s pick to fill the Supreme Court.
Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia, said the New Hampshire race might ultimately hinge on whether Mrs. Clinton meets or exceeds President Obama’s 5.5-point margin of victory in 2012.
“If she doesn’t, Ayotte could be able to run far enough ahead of Trump to win,” he said. “If she does, the road for Ayotte gets a lot rockier.”