A Closer Look at Northeast Senate Races: Part 2

By Sam Norton, Tory

New Hampshire

In the spring of 2009, three-term Senator Judd Gregg announced that he would be retiring, setting off a marquee race in this perennial battleground. New Hampshire, the only state in the Northeast to back George W. Bush in 2000, had swung to the left in the past decade, narrowly choosing John Kerry in 2004, and then picking Barack Obama by a far wider margin in 2008. At the same time, the Republican Party also saw its advantage erode at the state and local level. In 2004, they lost the governor’s mansion; in 2006, they lost both Congressional seat and the state legislature; and in 2008, they lost the state’s junior Senator, John Sununu. It seemed to many that this traditional bastion of libertarianism, with its famous motto “live free or die,” was poised to become a Democratic stronghold.

At the time, with President Obama riding high, Democrats were confident that they could maintain– or possibly even expand– their filibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate, and winning New Hampshire would be key to achieving that goal. With this priority in mind, Democrats set out to find the best candidate they could offer. They succeeded in convincing Second District Representative Paul Hodes to enter the race. Hodes had knocked off a longtime incumbent in 2006, and was reelected by a wide margin in 2008. In Congress, he had assembled a fairly centrist record; according to National Journal, in 2009 he voted more liberal than 57% of the House on economic, defense, and foreign policy issues.

The Republicans were as alarmed at the prospect of losing this seat as the Democrats were hopeful at the prospect of picking it up, and sought to find a viable candidate of their own. They were able to convince their top choice, Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, to jump into the race. Ayotte was originally appointment by the state’s Republican governor in 2004, and was renominated for the post by his Democratic successor in 2009, a reflection of the bipartisan praise that she received for her term in office.

With strong establishment support on her side, Ayotte appeared a strong favorite to win the Republican nomination. However, she faced a slew of candidates in the primary, many of whom cultivated Tea Party support. In the end, she managed to eke out a narrow win, defeating her closest challenged, Ovide Lamontagne, by less than 2,000 votes out of nearly 139,000 cast. Her endorsement from Sarah Palin likely proved decisive in her victory.

With the general election match set following the September primary, campaigning began in earnest. Although the campaign has not taken on the same harsh tone that has characterized many of the prominent races in this cycle, both candidates have eagerly criticized their opponent. Ayotte has accused Hodes of participating in Washington’s culture of reckless spending, pointing to his votes for the stimulus package and ObamaCare, while Hodes charges that Ayotte would be a stooge for corporate interests.

Ayotte has succeeded in maintaining a steady lead throughout the campaign, and with election day approaching, Hodes has probably run out of time to close the gap. The RealClearPolitics poll average has Ayotte ahead by 9 points. In addition to the hospitable political climate, Ayotte has a few other factors working in her favor. She has received the endorsement of the state’s most influential newspaper, the Manchester Union Leader. Although she narrowly trails Hodes in fundraising, she has benefited from an influx of independent expenditures praising her and criticizing Hodes. All told, Kelly Ayotte seems virtually certain to become the next senator from the state of New Hampshire.

Pennsylvania

No state better exemplifies the anti-establishment fervor that has characterized the 2010 election cycle than Pennsylvania. Both Democrats and Republicans spurned their parties’ chosen nominee, choosing a more ideological alternative. Ironically, the focus of ire for both liberals and conservatives was the same man– Senator Arlen Specter. Specter had a long career as a moderate Republican, which put him at odds with many GOP voters. He nearly lost his primary to then-Congressman Pat Toomey in 2004, surviving with the help of President Bush and conservative former Senator Rick Santorum. Early on, Toomey announced that he would seek a rematch this time around. When Specter voted for the stimulus package, a move that essentially ensured his defeat in the Republican primary, he abruptly switched his affiliation and declared that he would run for reelection as a Democrat. This left Toomey unchallenged for the Republican nomination.

The intrigue continued, as Specter faces competition for the Democratic billing from Philadelphia-area congressman Joe Sestak. Specter consolidated establishment support, receiving endorsements from prominent local, state, and national politicians, major newspapers, and organized labor. The White House even attempted to convince Sestak to drop out of the race, enticing him with a job offer. Sestak, however, overcame a significant deficit in the polls to defeat Specter.

The general election campaign began in earnest, with the candidates attacking one another for their supposed extremism. Sestak, who rode the Democratic tidal wave to victory in 2006, had amassed a liberal voting record in Congress, supporting the stimulus package, ObamaCare, and cap and trade. In addition, he is pro-gun control and was a co-sponsor of the Employee Free Choice Act, which included the controversial card check provision. Likewise, Toomey racked up a staunchly conservative record during his three terms in Congress, even opposing members of his own party on issues like farm subsidies and the 2003 Medicare Prescription Drug Act. These positions have made him popular with Tea Party activists, but have left him vulnerable to criticism from Sestak, who, among other things, accuses him of favoring the outsourcing of jobs to China based on his support for free trade.

After holding a solid lead throughout most of the campaign, Toomey has seen his advantage in the polls diminish in recent weeks, with RealClearPolitics putting him ahead by just 2 points. However, he is still favored to win. Toomey has raised nearly twice as much money as Sestak, and benefits from a substantial enthusiasm gap between Republican and Democratic partisans. He is also likely to receive a boost from the party’s gubernatorial nominee, Tom Corbett, who is cruising to victory and could carry other Republican candidates on his coattails.

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