Opinion | Purple politics could keep the Senate blue


NASHUA, N.H. — Sen. Maggie Hassan is one of the leading champions of politics colored not in red and blue but in lilac or violet. The New Hampshire Democrat, who got elected six years ago by a margin of just 1,017 votes, uses an unmistakably New England locution to describe her state’s voters: “Wicked independent.” So it’s not surprising that one of her very favorite words is “bipartisan.”

She likes to catalogue the long list of bills passed during this Congress with both Democratic and Republican votes — on infrastructure, science and semiconductors, postal reform, gun safety, and help for veterans exposed to toxic substances — and insists that this is the way her state’s voters want politics to be done.

“There’s a palpable sense of excitement and relief about that,” she said in an interview here after visiting a local tech business. “People really would like a sense of community again. … People solve things all the time at the community level without asking each other what political party they belong to.”

And Hassan adds a thought far more likely to be embroidered on a sampler than shouted out on Twitter: “You can’t care more about winning the argument than about solving the problem.”

The proudly purple reelection campaign Hassan is waging is a reminder that to win a majority in a U.S. Senate that structurally tilts toward conservatives — Wyoming and South Dakota have the same number of senators as California and New York — Democrats need to prevail in states that are by no means reliably progressive.

This makes bipartisanship a good calling card for potentially vulnerable Senate incumbents, and it’s valuable in swing House districts, too. Hassan’s two Democratic House colleagues here, Reps. Chris Pappas and Ann Kuster, are also stressing the bipartisan victories in Congress.

In this very swingy state, no one in this trio pretends that 2022 will be easy for any of them. But they all sense a mood swing in the Democrats’ favor.

Some of it owes to a bill passed in a thoroughly partisan way, the Inflation Reduction Act, particularly its provisions fighting climate change and controlling prescription drug prices. “I’ve been campaigning for 10 years on controlling drug prices,” Kuster told me. Being able to deliver matters, she said.

As for Hassan, the fact that congressional Republicans unanimously opposed the bill — and that her leading GOP opponents vying in a Sept. 13 primary have criticized the bill — allows her to give her moderation a populist tilt. She assails “extreme” Republicans who are “regurgitating Big Pharma’s talking points and Big Oil’s talking points.” Count on “Big Pharma” and “Big Oil” to play starring bad-guy roles in Democratic campaigns all over the country.

And if there is any state where the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade is likely to change the political winds, this is it. A poll this month by the Saint Anselm College Survey Center found that 71 percent of New Hampshire voters identified themselves as “pro-choice” while just 25 percent picked “pro-life.” Only 38 percent said they supported the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Pappas said in an interview at his family’s restaurant in Manchester that the abortion ruling was motivating some Republicans to switch sides. “I had someone come up to me and say they never voted for me before, but were voting for me this time.”

The Democrats’ hope that abortion will be a wedge issue among libertarian-leaning conservatives — they loom large here — was underscored by the evocative tag line of a Hassan television ad against the court decision. “Protecting our personal freedoms isn’t just what’s right for New Hampshire,” she says. “It’s what makes us New Hampshire.”

Republicans, of course, still believe that high prices and President Biden’s unpopularity will push everything else aside. Hassan has been pummeled on the airwaves by pro-Republican ads assailing, among other things, “Joe Biden and Maggie Hassan’s War on American Energy” and charging that she supported “wasteful spending that led to skyrocketing inflation.”

The ads are echoed by her potential GOP foes (when they are not criticizing each other). One of them, former state representative Kevin Smith, said in an interview that the election “is absolutely going to be on the economy” and what he called “Hassan’s support for every spending bill in Washington.”

Demonizing Hassan as an ideologue will be hard, not only because voters here know her well from her four years as a moderate governor, but also because she tried to immunize herself on prices by criticizing Biden for not doing more about inflation and by calling for a gas tax holiday.

The Republican attacks also feel, well, so six months ago. Kuster said that the abortion decision, the Jan. 6 inquiry and rising concern about gun violence have altered the terms of the election.

“For the first time, I’m running on freedom and safety, which used to be bedrock Republican issues,” she said. “The Republicans are running on chaos.”

Wicked independents aren’t big on chaos.

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