Ayotte, Hassan draw sharp differences in first Senate debate

  • Moderator George Epstein, center listens as candidates for U.S. Senate, Democrat Gov. Maggie Hassan, left, and incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte debate Friday, Sept. 30, 2016, in Conway, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) Jim Cole

  • Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, Gov. Maggie Hassan speaks during a debate with incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte Friday, Sept. 30, 2016, in Conway, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) Jim Cole

  • Moderator George Epstein, center listens as candidates for U.S. Senate, Democrat Gov. Maggie Hassan, left, and incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte debate Friday, Sept. 30, 2016, in Conway, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) Jim Cole

  • Incumbent candidate for U.S. Senate Republican Kelly Ayotte speaks during a debate with Democratic challenger Gov. Maggie Hassan Friday, Sept. 30, 2016, in Conway, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) Jim Cole

Monitor staff
Friday, September 30, 2016

Democrat Maggie Hassan and Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte clashed over gun policy in the their first U.S. Senate debate Friday, with Hassan accusing Washington politicians of doing too little to keep terrorists from buying guns in America.

“ISIS knows it,” said Hassan, the sitting two-term governor of New Hampshire. “They know that in the United States it’s really easy to circumvent the current laws and get weapons.”

Gun violence has taken a national spotlight in the wake of several mass shootings, including one at an Orlando nightclub in June that killed 49 people.

Hassan supports banning people on terror watch lists from purchasing guns and expanding federal background checks to include firearms bought online or at gun shows. Ayotte argued the most important step is aggressively enforcing the country’s existing laws.

“What I have supported is making sure that we help fix the background check system,” said Ayotte, who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2010 and has opposed expanded background checks. “There is an abysmal record on prosecuting gun violence and also violations of our background check system right now.”

The debate at the North Conway Grand Hotel featured little back-and-forth between the candidates, but each took turns targeting the other’s record. They split on major issues including the Affordable Care Act, the Iran nuclear deal and whether to overturn the Citizens United decision.

Presidential politics loom large over the race, but didn’t feature prominently in the first of six scheduled U.S. Senate debates.

Both candidates said they are not afraid to stand up to their party’s presidential nominee. Ayotte – who supports but does not endorse Donald Trump – said she disagrees with the businessman’s plans to handle Russian aggression, Vladimir Putin and NATO.

Hassan said she is proud to support Democrat Hillary Clinton, but identified President Obama’s plan to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay as an area of disagreement with her own party. Ayotte didn’t mention Clinton, but Hassan called Ayotte’s support of Trump a weakness.

“This is a man who has no plan when it comes to defeating ISIS,” she said.

New Hampshire’s U.S. Senate race is one of the most competitive in the country, and has the potential to tip party control of the chamber. Polls show the contest locked in a dead heat. Spending in the race is expected to reach a record-setting $100 million.

Ayotte and Hassan both panned the flow of outside money into the race. But Ayotte criticized Hassan for not signing a pledge earlier this year meant to limit third-party money in their contest.

“We could have kept the money out of this race which would have been a lot better,” Ayotte said. “I am disappointed, because when you can actually act in your own race . . . I think that’s the best measure.”

Ayotte and Hassan couldn’t agree on a final version of the so-called “people’s pledge.”

Hassan said she supports reforming campaign finance laws and overturning the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that opened the door to big money in politics.

The candidates’ debate techniques differed. Hassan sought in almost every answer to differentiate herself from Ayotte, accusing the Republican of siding with her party, balancing the budget on seniors’ backs and not following through on protecting the environment.

Ayotte cast herself as bipartisan worker and several times named Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, the state’s senior U.S. Senator, as a partner on legislation to protect the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and reauthorize a federal land and water conservation fund.

In one of the more lively exchanges, Ayotte defended her record on climate change, saying she was the first Republican member of Congress to back the federal plan to cut carbon emissions. Hassan criticized Ayotte for protecting tax breaks for “big oil.”

While neither candidate will have a direct say on the project, Ayotte and Hassan differed on the controversial Northern Pass project. Ayotte called for full burial of the proposed transmission line, which is set to cross New Hampshire mostly overhead to bring hydropower into the regional grid. Hassan said she supports additional burial, but thinks the blasting required for burial in some areas could be more environmentally damaging than putting it overhead.

On foreign policy, Ayotte said the country should do away with the Iran nuclear deal. Hassan called it “imperfect,” but the best way to keep nuclear weapons out of the country.

Ayotte defended her decision not to hold hearings on President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, saying the people should weigh-in during upcoming election. Hassan accused the Republican of not doing her job, saying the people weighed-in when they elected Obama in 2012.

On the Affordable Care Act, both women advocated repealing the medical device tax, but differed on the law itself. Hassan said the country should “build on the progress” of so-called Obamacare because it has allowed people to get insurance coverage who have preexisting conditions. Ayotte argued the health care law is pricing people out of affordable coverage, and highlighted her votes in the U.S. Senate to repeal it.

It’s not clear how many voters were swayed by the debate. Many attendees packed into the crowded conference room already wore stickers supporting a candidate.

“Ayotte stayed more with the subject matter, and did not get into personal attacks,” said Dick Badger, an 87-year-old Republican voting for Clinton in November. “Hassan made everything an attack, I didn’t appreciate that.”

“It didn’t change my opinion, it just reinforced it,” said Barbara McEvoy, a 73-year-old from Freedom. “We just need so desperately to deal with the issues Maggie is going to deal with.”

The next debate, co-sponsored by the Monitor, is Monday at 7 p.m. and will be televised on NECN. It can also be streamed live at concordmonitor.com.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)