Trump challenges Republican chances in N.H. Senate race
GILFORD, N.H. >> Kelly Ayotte cannot escape the shadow of Donald Trump.
Even here, among the fried dough stands and pig pens of New Hampshire's summer fairs, the Republican senator faces difficult questions about her party's presidential nominee, a celebrity businessman who threatens to weigh down swing state Republicans at every level this fall.
There are no easy answers for vulnerable incumbents such as Ayotte, who are troubled by Trump but don't want to alienate his shrinking, yet devoted base of support.
"With any candidate, I always reserve the right to re-evaluate my position," Ayotte, sipping a root beer float, told The Associated Press on Saturday at Belknap County's 4-H Fair. "My position at this moment is I'm going to be voting for him."
But she's not eager to talk about Trump as she campaigns for a second Senate term.
The New York billionaire's standing is at a low mark of his campaign in preference polls, and national party leaders are openly considering whether to turn their backs on him. In New Hampshire, GOP officials have quietly identified thousands of anti-Trump Republicans and independents, hoping they could be convinced to vote for Ayotte instead of sitting out the election altogether.
Their success will help determine which party controls the Senate for the first two years of the next president's term. Democrats need to pick up just four new seats to seize control of the 100-member chamber if Democrat Hillary Clinton wins. In that case, her vice presidential running mate, Tim Kaine, would break tie votes as president of the Senate.
Outside groups are pouring money into the race, although neither side mentioned Trump in new ads launched this week.
The Senate Republican campaign arm began airing two new ads Tuesday attacking Ayotte's opponent, Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, for her handling of the state's heroin crisis. Another group allied with Democrats attacks Ayotte's votes on tax cuts and Medicare.
Ayotte and Republican candidates in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Illinois are fighting to focus their contests on local issues. The New Hampshire senator, a former state attorney general, spoke with dozens of voters as she toured three New Hampshire fairs over the weekend, making small talk with most, while wading into the state's opioid crisis a handful of times.
A few days earlier, protesters holding Trump masks ran behind her in a local road race. There were no protests over the weekend, but evidence of Trump's influence on the 2016 election season was easy to find.
Stan Lloyd, a self-described independent from Loudon, New Hampshire, confronted Ayotte as she was heading to the dunk tank at Loudon's Old Home Day festival.
"She's trying to play this game," said the retired teacher, who supported Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the GOP presidential primary. He said he would not vote for Ayotte or Trump this fall.
"She's going to vote for him and support him but not endorse him?" Lloyd asked. "I don't know what the difference is."
At roughly the same time, Hassan lashed out at what she called the "Trump-Ayotte agenda" at a rally. Hassan's campaign manager, Marc Goldberg, asserted that the Republican presidential nominee is making his job easier.
"Trump helps. He unequivocally helps," Goldberg told AP. Ayotte "has this weight around her leg in Trump that she's dragging around."
Ayotte has already been forced to distance herself from many of Trump's positions.
She rejected his proposed temporary ban on Muslim immigration, called his criticism of a Hispanic judge "offensive and wrong," and said she was "appalled" by his weeklong feud with the Muslim family of a fallen U.S. soldier.
On Saturday, she also broke with Trump's repeated suggestion that a loss in November would be evidence that the nation's election system is rigged. "I have confidence in our election system," Ayotte said.
The senator, a prominent voice on national security issues, would not say whether she trusted Trump with the codes to the nation's nuclear arsenal. Instead, she noted Congress' oversight role.
"We have a strong system of checks and balances," she said, promising to play an active role in national security whether Clinton or Trump wins the presidency. "I think he'll surround himself, I assume, with people who will help him understand."
The comments echo those of Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, who are vowing to hold Trump in check should he win, even as they struggle to block President Barack Obama's executive actions.
Whether Ayotte likes it or not, her fate is tied to Trump's.
The New Hampshire GOP has identified fewer than 10,000 likely Republican voters who are considering sitting out the November contest because they oppose Trump's candidacy. The state party has yet to determine how best to persuade the group to cast ballots for Ayotte. Outreach may include mail, phone calls and conversations with volunteers at their homes, according to a Republican official with direct knowledge of internal strategy. The official was not authorized to describe publicly those private discussions and spoke to AP on the condition of anonymity.
Republican officials note their candidates have survived unpopular presidential nominees in the past, but suggest there is a point at which their 2016 Senate candidates cannot win no matter how well they perform. In New Hampshire, that threshold is likely around 10 points. Clinton led Trump by 15 points in a poll of New Hampshire voters conducted by Boston's WBUR radio between July 29 and Aug. 1.
"People down ballot are concerned," said Norman Silber, a Republican candidate for state representative who campaigned alongside Ayotte at the Belknap County Fair. "I wish we had a different presidential candidate."
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