CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Democratic New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan announced Monday she would challenge Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte, setting the stage for a highly competitive race that will be critical in determining majority control of the Senate in the next president's first year.
Hassan, who made her announcement in an online video, said she's running to bring a bipartisan, common-sense governing approach to Washington that mirrors that of New Hampshire. She said Washington has given in to powerful special interests and lobbyists who rig the system against the middle class.
As evidence of dysfunction in Washington, she pointed to Republican efforts to end the president's health care law, which would jeopardize Medicaid expansion, and the fact that people can't refinance their student loans.
"The people of New Hampshire deserve better, and in order for us to make progress, we need to have the kind of bipartisan, problem-solving, results-driven approach that I've led here," Hassan told The Associated Press.
Hassan, a two-term governor, has long been considered Democrats' best chance of beating Ayotte, a former attorney general who won her seat during the 2010 Republican wave election. Democratic voter turnout spikes in New Hampshire in presidential years, handing the party a win here in 2008 and 2012. Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton, the party's front-runner for the presidential nomination, won the 2008 primary and has long been popular in the state, marking another potential hurdle for Ayotte.
Hassan, 57, is one of the last major Democratic recruits to jump into the 2016 race. New Hampshire joins Illinois, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and several other states as keys to control of the Senate, and the race between Hassan and Ayotte is likely to cost tens of millions of dollars. Ayotte raised $1.6 million in the third fundraising quarter and has $5 million cash on hand.
In a statement, Ayotte said she expects a spirited campaign and is seeking re-election to fight for "better opportunities and a brighter future for our kids and our state."
Hassan's announcement comes just more than two weeks after reaching a deal with legislators allowing an $11.3 billion budget plan to go into effect after a months-long stalemate with GOP lawmakers over business tax cuts.
Hassan comfortably won re-election in 2014, campaigning on a message of a bipartisanship that hinged on the state budget and passage of Medicaid expansion in early 2014. More than 42,000 people signed up for insurance under the expansion, but the law will sunset at the end of next year if lawmakers don't vote to reauthorize it in the upcoming session. It's a fight that is likely to suck up most of the political oxygen in Concord early next year.
Hassan cites several accomplishments in her campaign kick-off, including freezing tuition at state universities, lowering it at community colleges and doubling the research and development tax credit.
Women's issues are likely to be a major focus of the 2016 campaign. Ayotte does not support government funding for Planned Parenthood, which has been questioned in recent months for providing fetal tissue from abortions for research. But Ayotte warned her fellow GOP lawmakers last week against shutting down the government over funding for the organization.
Hassan said key political differences with Ayotte include the incumbent's opposition to that Planned Parenthood funding and her votes for budgets that would have turned Medicare into a voucher program and reduced Pell grants.
Republicans, meanwhile, charge Hassan with being a tax-and-spend liberal. In her initial budget proposal this year, Hassan proposed raising the cigarette tax and car registration fees.
"Hassan's playbook of more taxes, more spending, and bigger government has not worked for New Hampshire families and small businesses," Jennifer Horn, chairwoman of the state Republican party, said in a statement.
Ayotte launched her re-election bid during the summer. One of a few female GOP senators, Ayotte rose quickly to national prominence and has become a leading Republican voice on national security and other issues, an area where Hassan is lacking experience. Ayotte is often mentioned as a potential vice presidential candidate.