In New Hampshire, Maggie Hassan May Face a High-Profile Fight

Senator Maggie Hassan, a former governor of her state, is working to burnish her centrist image without making political waves.

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MERIDITH, N.H. — At the Twin Barns Brewing Co., perched near the shoreline of Lake Winnipesaukee, Senator Maggie Hassan sampled some of the signature product on a recent afternoon, then chased it with a promise to fight for more reliable internet service, which the owners said they needed to maintain their customer base.

“If you are a young professional and you’ve discovered over the 18 months of the pandemic that you don’t actually have to be in the office — you can work remotely — this is a perfect work-life balance,” said Dave Picarillo, co-owner of the brewery and restaurant, which has seen an uptick in business as people have decamped to New Hampshire’s Lakes Region during the pandemic. “But without broadband and cellular, that will never happen.”

As she tried a tasty blonde ale, Ms. Hassan assured Mr. Picarillo and his partner, Bruce Walton, that she was on the case. She was part of a bipartisan group of senators who were working to speed a compromise infrastructure plan that included new broadband funding to President Biden’s desk — whether or not her party was able to push through a second, broader package of Democratic initiatives.

“I think you’ve got to get things done when you have the opportunity,” said Ms. Hassan, a former two-term governor seeking a second Senate term.

Ms. Hassan is the moderate Senate Democrat and potential swing vote who few people in Washington talk about. She does not make waves or grab headlines like Joe Manchin III or Krysten Sinema, her colleagues from West Virginia and Arizona who draw much of the attention as the centrists most likely to defect from their party. Her every utterance is not parsed for significance about what it means for legislative progress. Reporters don’t throng around her.

And that’s no accident, she said: “I just like to keep my head down and get work done.”

Yet while she tries to fly under the radar, what happens in Congress in the next few months as Democrats and Mr. Biden try to enact their ambitious agenda will probably do more to determine her future than either Mr. Manchin’s or Ms. Sinema’s. Unlike those two Democrats, Ms. Hassan will be on the ballot in a swing state next year, during a midterm cycle that is traditionally unkind to members of the president’s party.

“I think she will, to a large extent next year, rise or fall with Joe Biden, his numbers and how New Hampshire voters will feel about the economy,” said Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire.

Even more than those factors, her political future could turn on whether Chris Sununu, the popular Republican governor and a member of one of the state’s most prominent political families, decides to answer the call from his party to jump into the race. He would be a formidable opponent and immediately transform the New Hampshire race into a marquee contest, placing Ms. Hassan among the most threatened incumbents as Democrats try to retain their extremely fragile hold on the Senate.

“If the race is with Sununu — and I don’t know if it is Sununu — it is going to be a tough one,” said Thomas D. Rath, a former state attorney general in New Hampshire and a longtime Republican force in the state.

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Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican and a member of a prominent New Hampshire political family, could challenge Ms. Hassan for her Senate seat in 2022.Credit…Pool photo by David Lane

Mr. Sununu, whose father was a former governor and White House chief of staff and whose brother was a U.S. senator, has not tipped his hand on whether he will run despite entreaties from Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, and others who believe he gives them by far the best chance of taking the seat as they battle for the majority. He has expressed some qualms about jumping into the Washington maelstrom, including losing the executive power that comes with being a governor to join a legislative body.

“I’m a manager, I’m an executive,” Governor Sununu said last week on the New Hampshire Journal podcast. “There are very few of those in Washington,” he said, adding that he also has to determine, “is it the right path for my family? I have kids to put through college, and all that kind of stuff.”

Still, the betting in both New Hampshire and Washington is that the governor, whose office declined an interview request, will make the race, finding it too hard to resist the opportunity.

As for Mr. Hassan, she said the governor’s plans were not a factor in her own.

“I don’t know, and it doesn’t really change my work,” she said last week when asked whether she thought Mr. Sununu would run. “I’m proud of what I’ve done and I will make my case to the people of New Hampshire.”

While she may be low-key in Washington, Ms. Hassan has been a fixture in New Hampshire politics for almost two decades, serving in the State Senate as majority leader and twice winning races for governor before toppling Kelly Ayotte, the incumbent Republican senator, by just over 1,000 votes in 2016. Her allies say that Republicans have consistently underestimated Ms. Hassan, and will likely do so again.

“She has got chops when it comes to winning tough races, and it has not just been one tough race,” said Kathy Sullivan, a former chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. “She works very hard at it.”

Republicans are already trying to paint Ms. Hassan as a loyal acolyte of Senator Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat and majority leader. They say her low profile — one called her “invisible” — is a sign of ineffectiveness.

“We think with the way things are trending with the Democratic Party moving hard to the left, the outlook for 2022 and potentially a very strong challenger that this is a very winnable race for us,” said T.W. Arrighi, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

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Ms. Hassan has been a fixture in New Hampshire politics for two decades.Credit…John Tully for The New York Times

As she prepares for a likely onslaught, Ms. Hassan is emphasizing her bipartisan record, hoping it resonates with the famously independent voters of New Hampshire. As governor, Ms. Hassan found ways to work with Republican-controlled legislatures to approve state budgets and expand Medicaid coverage. She said she was now trying to apply that same approach in the Senate.

She has teamed up with Republicans on a variety of issues, including tax assistance for small businesses, money for rural broadband and a crackdown on surprise medical billing included in a major funding bill last year. Now she is part of the group negotiating a bipartisan public works bill that Mr. Biden has hailed as a breakthrough.

“We think it is really important for the country to see where we have common ground and see us really trying to work across party lines,” she said.

But the bipartisan package is just one piece of the equation facing Congress. Democrats also want to force through a much larger measure that includes an expansive array of costly proposals, using a special budget maneuver known as reconciliation to shield it from a Republican filibuster. Many top Democrats believe the two bills should be linked and approved only in tandem to assure that both pass.

But Ms. Hassan appears ready to push forward with the public works bill even as the reconciliation plan takes shape — a stance that could put her at odds with some colleagues. She says Congress needs to strike while it can.

“I think it’s important that when you do have agreement on something as major as this level of infrastructure, which we need so desperately, that when there’s common ground, you come together,” she said at the brewery.

Ms. Hassan is generally supportive of a second bill to advance other elements of Mr. Biden’s plan, some of which she said would be “critical to building a foundation for a modern 21st-century leading economy,” but first she wanted to see what was in it. She has balked in the past at using reconciliation to accomplish far-reaching progressive priorities. She was one of seven Democratic senators who voted against including a $15-an-hour minimum wage in the nearly $1.9 trillion pandemic aid bill passed under reconciliation with solely Democratic votes and enacted in March.

Despite the legislative difficulties ahead, Ms. Hassan said she and her colleagues were in position to get much of what they sought, with a bipartisan imprint on some of it as a bonus.

“You know, there are always some white-knuckle moments,” said Ms. Hassan about the coming legislative drama. “But I’m feeling optimistic.”

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