Less than six weeks ahead of the midterm elections, Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan leads her Republican challenger, Don Bolduc, by about 8.5 percentage points in a New Hampshire race that could determine control of the US Senate, according to a new poll.
New Hampshire voters are anxious about inflation and dissatisfied with President Biden’s leadership, the poll found. But in a year when the Supreme Court ended the constitutional right to abortion, and worries about the future of American democracy abound, women and independents appear to be breaking strongly for Hassan, whose rival has called himself “unapologetically pro-life” and has questioned the results of the 2020 presidential election. Independent women favored Hassan over Bolduc 65 percent to 19 percent.
“Fired up by the Dobbs decision, independent women are Hassan’s first line of defense,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, who conducted the survey.
New Hampshire voters, however, are generally content with the direction of their state, and the poll found voters prefer their three-term Republican incumbent governor, Chris Sununu, to his relatively unknown Democratic rival, Tom Sherman, by a wide margin, 53 percent to 36 percent. Almost one-third of those surveyed had never heard of Sherman, a doctor and state senator.
The Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll surveyed 500 likely voters in live telephone conversations from Sept. 23-26. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
That both Democrat Hassan and Republican Sununu lead their contests confirms the split political personality of New Hampshire. It’s the only state in the nation where one party controls the entire congressional delegation and the other the Legislature and governor’s office.
Just 43 percent approved of Biden’s leadership, and only 30 percent said they wanted to support “the direction President Biden is leading the nation.”
Yet Hassan led Bolduc 50 percent to 41 percent, with 3 percent preferring Libertarian Jeremy Kauffman and less than 7 percent undecided.
Hassan hasn’t always been in such a strong position. In 2016, she bested then-incumbent Republican senator Kelly Ayotte by just 1,000 votes. In polling since, Hassan has remained generally unpopular, and in this latest poll, fewer than half of those surveyed held a favorable view of her. A year ago, some analysts viewed her as the most vulnerable Democrat seeking reelection to the evenly divided Senate.
But she has clearly benefited from abortion’s significance in the campaign cycle, and her well-funded campaign has seized the opportunity to push her pro-abortion rights credentials in ubiquitous ads.
Hassan has also profited from Republican voters’ decision to nominate Bolduc, a Donald Trump-aligned populist who has said people should “rejoice” at Roe’s demise, though he opposes a federal ban on abortion. National Democratic leaders sank millions into ads criticizing Bolduc’s more-moderate GOP primary opponent in an attempt to line up what they viewed to be a less-electable nominee. Their investment appears to be paying off.
“I wouldn’t say I’m head over heels for Maggie, but I think she is the one that needs to win and beat Don Bolduc,” said Heather Joy, 52, a middle school music teacher from Bethlehem who took part in the poll. Joy, an independent, described Bolduc as “way too Trumpy” and having “super kooky ideas.”
In the past, Bolduc has suggested that COVID vaccines contained microchips to track people and called Sununu a “Chinese communist sympathizer.” Sununu, who endorsed Bolduc’s main opponent in the primary, has called Bolduc a “conspiracy theorist” and unserious. (The governor endorsed Bolduc after he won the Republican nomination.)
Hassan’s lead, no doubt, is also partly attributable to the record-setting $24 million she’s spent so far, with ads beginning a year ago. Bolduc has spent just $500,000 so far in his entire two-year campaign, his most recent campaign finance report shows. He has yet to air a single television ad.
Hassan’s ads, which show her working with different interest groups to get things done, may have helped burnish her reputation as politically effective. When asked which candidate was more willing to compromise to get things done, Hassan led Bolduc 51 percent to 30 percent.
Few Republicans support her, the poll found. Lonn Elliott, a 48-year-old Republican from Francestown, said Hassan’s inauthenticity on a top issue in the campaign bothers him. “She’s not doing anything to help the inflation issue, and then she gets up there on her little soapbox and says she’s doing everything she can.”
Though Hassan’s lead was technically within the margin of error, Paleologos said Bolduc’s path to victory is “not impossible, but not highly probable” — there are so few undecided voters that even if Bolduc got all of their votes, he couldn’t overcome Hassan’s lead. The Libertarian vote, while small, could also siphon off support.
Indeed, Libertarians helped Hassan win six years ago when a pair of Libertarian-affiliated candidates received a combined 4 percent in the general election.
But GOP voters seem fired up to vote, and that could help Bolduc, Paleologos said. Republicans in New Hampshire hold an 11-point margin over Democrats in the “extremely motivated to vote” category.
The economy topped the list of most important issues, identified by 29 percent of respondents, followed by protecting US democracy at 21 percent and abortion rights at 15 percent. Though the last election was dominated by the pandemic, only 1 percent of respondents said it is the most important issue now. Although nearly half of respondents said they were less confident in the public schools than they were before the pandemic, fewer than 5 percent said education was their top issue.
In the poll, Sununu — who lifted his profile during the pandemic and has crisscrossed the state as governor with feel-good retail events now featured in his campaign’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” video ad — was the most well-liked among various local and national politicians surveyed. Fifty-nine percent said they had a favorable view of Sununu and 32 percent had an unfavorable view.
Erik Sousa, a 41-year-old mechanic from Amherst, is among Sununu’s admirers.
“He’s for the people, you see him around. He’s trying to do stuff for the economy, he set up everything for the pandemic,” said Sousa, a Republican. “He’s definitely a people person, and that’s why I like him. He seems like one of us.”
Nearly three times as many Democrats as Republicans cited protecting democracy as their most important issue.
Several respondents interviewed by the Globe were aware that Bolduc reversed his strong assertion that the 2020 election was fraudulent the day after he won the nomination. Sununu, by contrast, has been firm that Biden was elected president.
Some Republicans are worried about protecting democracy, too. Elizabeth Hollis, 65, a registered Republican from Hampton, said she is increasingly interested in Democrats because “it’s scary where things are heading.”
But it’s the abortion ruling that has jolted the midterm election around the country into a much tighter contest for Republicans, who could otherwise have focused on skyrocketing inflation. In New Hampshire, the implications of the abortion ruling might be more profound given the strong popularity of abortion rights, and state legislation signed last year banning abortion after 24 weeks with no exception for rape or incest. New Hampshire previously had no law setting gestational limits.
Nearly 7 out of 10 New Hampshire voters in the poll said they opposed a proposal by Senator Lindsey Graham for a federal ban on most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Bolduc says he opposes the bill, but some voters remain wary.
Philip Crystal, 48, a lifelong Republican from Alton, said he supports Hassan partly because of Graham’s proposal.
“We as men should not have the right to govern women’s bodies, frankly,” he said.
Over the past year, a Libertarian idea called the Free State Project, which encourages fans of extremely limited government to move to New Hampshire and run for office, has been in the news after Free Staters drastically cut a small town’s school budget and, in Belknap County, temporarily caused the shutdown of a popular publicly owned ski resort.
Half the state’s voters now say they are aware of the once-obscure project, with 26 percent of respondents having an unfavorable view and 10 percent with a favorable view.
James Pindell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell. Daniel Kool can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dekool01.