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Oct 28, 2016 12:09 AM

Ayotte, Hassan, trade fire over policy and politics at NH1 News U.S. Senate debate

NH1 News Political Director

CONCORD – With just 12 days to go until Election Day and the latest polls in New Hampshire’s blockbuster U.S. Senate race indicating a dead heat, it’s no surprise that Thursday night’s NH1 News debate between Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte and her Democratic challenger Gov. Maggie Hassan turned contentious and personal.

The two candidates traded fire over such issues as rising health care premiums, college affordability, the state’s acute heroin and opioid crisis, which candidate’s more beholden to special interests and which one’s more willing to stand up to their own political party, and outside money in politics.

And the two clashed over the latest negative ads in their high profile, expensive, and crucial Senate race. Early in the debate, the tension reached a fever pitch when the moderators asked Hassan to react to a new TV commercial from a pro-Ayotte super PAC accusing the governor of lying when she said she was unaware about a sexual misconduct scandal at the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy when her husband Tom was serving as the academy’s principal.

“This is a false and personal attack against my family. The facts here are that the school and my husband went right to the police as soon as they received allegations of misconduct. And my campaign donated to charity the old and small dollar contribution from the offender,” Hassan explained.

The instructor at the center of the scandal had made a campaign contribution to Hassan’s successful 2012 bid for governor.

The governor then went on the attack, saying “what’s really concerning here is how much Sen. Ayotte’s allies want her reelected that they would stoop to this length to politicize this kind of tragedy at a school, that they would stoop to politicizing other things as well as they have as well as they have for instance around the heroin and opioid crisis.”

“That’s why they’re running this despicable ad,” she added.

Asked if she thought it was an appropriate ad, Ayotte said “I’ve been attacked on my character. I’ve been attacked with misleading ads about my record, and Gov. Hassan has not said anything about it. We could have kept this money out and so she’ll have to address this ad.”

The two also traded fire over a new mailer put out this week by the New Hampshire Republican Party that said “Donald Trump needs senators like Kelly Ayotte in the United States Senate.

Since Trump clinched the GOP nomination in the late spring, Ayotte’s kept her distance form her party’s standard bearer, saying she’d vote for him but not endorse him. Earlier this month, after a 2005 audio recording of Trump using extremely lewd comments regarding groping women rocked the race for the White House, Ayotte broke with Trump. She said she’d no longer vote for him and instead would write in the name of his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.

Hours before the debate, Hassan’s campaign put out a new web ad on the mailer, adding that “Kelly Ayotte has backtracked on her support for the Republican nominee, yet in secret mail pieces sent by her campaign, Ayotte brags that a future President Trump needs her in the Senate.

Hassan claimed in the debate that Ayotte’s “campaign approved that mailer that went out and said she wanted to work with him in the United States Senate.”

Ayotte responded that the mailer “doesn’t come from my campaign.”

“I’ve stood up to my party unlike Gov. Hassan,” Ayotte added.

Then she took aim at Hassan, saying “she has not stood up to her nominee.”

Hassan counter-attacked, saying that “Sen. Ayotte on 35 different occasions stood with Donald Trump.”

Both candidates attack each other’s record

Ayotte’s record in the Senate was under the microscope.

Touting her ability to work across the aisle, Ayotte said “this is a difference between she and I. I will stand up to my own party and the other side. I have one of the most bipartisan records because I focus on getting things done.”

Hassan shot back, saying “let’s just be really clear about Sen. Ayotte’s record in Washington. She voted with Ted Cruz five times to shut down the government and then when she realized that it was hurting New Hampshire, she was getting political heat for it, then she finally decided to pretend to be part of the solution.”

“There’s nothing bipartisan there,” Hassan added.

The governor’s record in the Corner Office was also in the spotlight.

Ayotte claimed that Hassan “vetoed the budget that had reductions for small businesses here in New Hampshire and called the budget dishonest.”

“Now she says that she was for this all along. That is the kind of double speak we don’t need,” Ayotte added.

Hassan responded that “Sen. Ayotte has voted to repeal Medicaid expansion five times. So for her to talk about being concerned about funding for behavioral health and substance abuse treatment when she’s willing to take away that treatment for 50,000 hardworking Granite Staters…is concerning.”

Ayotte also attacked Hassan’s efforts to combat the heroin and opioid epidemic.

Asked if the money allocated to fight the drug crisis were getting to the front lines quick enough, the senator said “unfortunately, I think there have been some concerns about not fast enough. Two of the three million dollars most recently allocated has not gone out the door.”

Hassan responded that “Sen. Ayotte just said some things that she knows are not true. First of all we’ve gotten out the door about $25 million in contracts for prevention, treatment, and recovery.

This is an incredibly misleading attack by Sen. Ayotte and her Republican allies in this state.”

But Ayotte fired back that “what was most recently allocated, just based on a recent report, two thirds of it has not gone out. But also when she vetoed the budget, she delayed getting funding out the door by about three months.”

Clash over drug crisis, health care costs

Hassan denied that her 2015 veto of the budget delayed any funding for the drug crisis.

The two candidates also clashed over this week’s news that the premiums for people obtaining their health insurance from the Obamacare exchanges would sharply rise nationwide (although there’s only a modest 2% rise projected here in New Hampshire)

“I’m hearing from people in New Hampshire, higher deductibles, higher co-pays, higher premiums. They were told they could keep their plan if they liked it. They haven’t been able to. Costs have gone up. And so we need more competition, more choice, more transparency. I’ve supported expanding flexible spending accounts, health savings accounts. More competition and transparency,” Ayotte said.,

“And this is a big difference between Gov. Hassan and I because she is going to be following Hillary Clinton’s lead on this, who actually wants to expand the Affordable Care Act when there’s so many issues that need to be addressed with it,” she added.

Hassan returned fire, saying “first of all people should be clear that my opponent has voted repeatedly to repeal Medicaid expansion. Just recently she is now using kind of Washington speak to tell you that because she’s willing to give you one more year on Medicaid expansion and then pull the rug out from you, that somehow that’s a good thing. We came together in New Hampshire and a bipartisan group of us built a Medicaid expansion program that actually has added competition on our exchange. And yes there is more to do to fix the issues and problems and lower costs with the Affordable Care Act but we shouldn’t do by taking away health care from people.”

The two candidates also repeatedly clashed over whether Ayotte voted to cut Pell Grants for middle-class students to attend college. And they argued over which one of them is beholden to special interests.

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