It’s not a good time for Democrats right now, but it’s going to get a lot worse. Nothing in Biden’s approval rating or other key indicators have changed my view from last November that the midterms coming up this year will see Republican gains – probably enough to give them control of both the House and the Senate.
Yet that doesn’t mean nothing is going their way. In the purple state of New Hampshire, their incumbent Senator is looking pretty good to hold on.
Democrats pin hopes on Hassan
Maggie Hassan was barely elected six years ago, winning by a mere 0.1% of the vote. She had gone from being a reasonably popular Governor to an instantly vulnerable Senator, but in a sense this was an achievement.
New Hampshire cherishes its reputation as an independent-minded electorate. They may have voted for every Democratic Presidential candidate since 2000 (when Bush narrowly won) but they’ve elected Republican Senators more often than not in that time. Hassan’s victory in 2016 marked the first time since the turn of the century Democrats controlled both Senate seats.
Yet with demographics broadly working against the Democrats and the Presidential margins generally shrinking (especially in 2016, when Trump was within 1%), the Republicans fancied their chances for her re-election challenge. And they had their own popular Governor to deploy.
Sununu plays it smart
Back in 2016 the Republicans may have lost the Senate seat but they gained the Governor’s Mansion which Maggie Hassan had vacated. And Chris Sununu, the new Republican Governor, turned out to be quite the fit for the state electorate.
A CEO who ran for major office for the first time in 2016, Sununu has governed primarily on economic policies while avoiding dramatic clashes over culture war issues. The formula has worked, and in 2020 he swept his re-election a second time* by an almost 2:1 margin.
For obvious reasons, Republican leaders approached him to run for Senate in 2022. And for obvious reasons: He turned them down.
Put simply: Being a Senator is awful these days. Being a Governor is much better. You can take executive actions unilaterally and actually get stuff done, and state politics (especially in New Hampshire) is enough less toxic and partisan that you can actually make some progress on resolving disagreements. And you aren’t the focus of the national maelstrom of hate which the Senate has become. Honestly, who would make the switch?
The Primary Problem
With Sununu having held back, Republicans have really struggled to find a good candidate for this theoretically very winnable Senate seat. This isn’t a new problem, in 2020 the Republican primary for the other Senate seat was between (I quote Wikipedia) a ‘ski instructor’, a ‘former Brigadier General’, a ‘journalist and perennial candidate’, and a ‘corporate lawyer’. And the lawyer won!
That lawyer, after getting beaten by 15% in the general election, is considering running again. If he does he will face such declared candidates as (again, quoting Wikipedia) a ‘roofing contractor’, a ‘landlord’, and a ‘cryptocurrency entrepreneur’. The best bet for the party so far is Chuck Morse, a longstanding politician who leads the Republican minority in the state senate. Normally a decent job to make a move to statewide office from, but a recent poll had less people knowing who he is than the Brigadier General from 2020 (who is running again, in fairness).
Still, it’s not exactly a stellar lineup. And that’s perhaps why hypothetical polls give Hassan 5-10% margins or better against the most likely nominees. Unless someone changes their mind, there are no strong candidates expected to enter the race. Hassan faces no meaningful primary challenge on her side.
And yet, with the general position so weak for Democrats right now, the markets have the race as almost a toss-up. Smarkets, so far the only option of the mainstream (i.e. non-crypto) providers, has Democrats at just over 4/5 to hold the seat.
It’s certainly not a lock that Hassan holds on. In a Red Wave she could lose out to even a rather underwhelming opponent. But she is in a good position just over 6 months out from election day, and the markets haven’t updated to consider how significant Sununu’s refusal to fight the race has been.
*(New Hampshire Governor elections take place every 2 years. This is the only reason I can think of to try the switch over to the Senate)
Pip Moss posts on Political Betting as Quincel. He has bets on the Democrats holding the seat at just over 4/5. You can follow him on Twitter at @PipsFunFacts