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Jun 7, 2016 8:55 PM

Steinhauser: New TV ad targeting Hassan over drug crisis sparks controversy

NH1 News Political Director

CONCORD - A new television commercial by a pro-GOP outside group backing Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s re-election that criticizes Democratic challenger Gov. Maggie Hassan’s efforts in battling New Hampshire’s heroin and opioid epidemic was targeted by a chorus of critics calling for the spot to be taken off TV.

The president of the Professional Firefighters of New Hampshire, a leading non-partisan advocate of treatment for drug addicts, as well as top Granite State Democratic elected officials on Tuesday urged One Nation to drop the commercial. Later Tuesday Ayotte herself joined the critics, saying on Twitter that the group should “take down their ad.”

But One Nation vows to keep running the spot.

The narrator in the ad says “the heroin epidemic has devastated New Hampshire families. Yet in New England New Hampshire ranked dead last on spending on substance abuse programs in 2014. And Gov. Maggie Hassan’s budget veto last year forced delays for substance abuse programs. Program delays that threated families in need. Then Gov. Hassan’s drug czar resigned, after being under fire for doing too little, too late.”

“Tell Gov. Hassan it’s time to step up on the heroin epidemic,” the announcer concludes.

NH1 News was first to report on Sunday that One Nation will spend $4.6 million to run the spot. The ad buy began Tuesday and runs through June 26th, and runs again July 6-15. The buy includes WBIN-TV, home of NH1 News.

Monday afternoon the Hassan campaign put out a statement saying “this is a disgusting and misleading attack that has no place in New Hampshire and disrespects all the families, public safety officials and advocates working so hard to solve this crisis. Kelly Ayotte should immediately call on her Washington allies to take down this ad and stop politicizing a crisis that takes the lives of Granite Staters every day.”

By Tuesday morning that message was echoed by Professional Firefighters of New Hampshire President Dave Lang.

In an interview with NH1 News, he said “there are real families that have been affected. For some outside group to come in and dump a bunch of money into an ad, really it’s so despicable that it’s unconscionable.”

He also that Ayotte to “tell them take it down. Stop hurting New Hampshire people at a time when they’re hurting themselves.”

And he took issue with the content in the commercial, saying “first of all it’s not true. Gov. Hassan has been standing shoulder to shoulder with firefighters. She’s expanded narcan, the use of narcan. She’s fought for more money for substance abuse. We’re doing everything possible that we can. We’ve got to turn this into a different direction. We need to do solutions and not partisan politics. These are real people.”

The Professional Firefighters of New Hampshire backed Hassan in her 2012 election to the Corner Office and in her 2014 re-election. They have so far not made any endorsement in this year’s Senate race.

Also calling for the ad to be dropped was Kriss Blevens, a leading activist in the state for treatment for those addicted to drugs. Blevens, who lost her step daughter to an overdose and subsequently founded Amber’s Place, a shelter in Manchester for those addicted to drugs who are seeking placement in recovery programs.

“New Hampshire is in a serious drug crisis just as the rest of the nation is, political party matters little when we speak about saving lives,” she wrote in a statement released by the Hassan campaign. “I urge the dark money political organization behind this message to remove it from the airwaves immediately, and to fund the solution with positivity and light."

The Hassan campaign also put out statements from the sheriffs of Strafford and Cheshire counties, as well as U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, state Senate Democratic leader Jeff Woodburn, and state House Democratic leader Steve Shurtleff, all calling for the commercial to be dropped.

In the late afternoon Ayotte took to Twitter to write “as I’ve said before: No one should be playing politics with the heroin epidemic. One Nation should take down their ad.

But One Nation said it wasn’t removing their commercial.

“One Nation is an issue organization discussing a topic of vital importance to the people of New Hampshire. Governor Hassan’s failures on this issue are well documented and we will continue to discuss them,” spokesman Ian Prior to NH1 News.

The Hassan campaign fired back, writing in a statement that “Republicans should be ashamed of this ad, and One Nation should remove the baseless and misleading attack from the air immediately."

While this is the first TV attack ad to focus on the state's drug crisis, it isn't the first time either candidate's been attacked over the issue.

In January, the title of memo from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee read "Memo to Kelly Ayotte: One Hearing Won't Undo Your Votes to Cut Substance Abuse Treatment.And this spring Ayotte was criticized for missing committee hearings dealing with the heroin and opioid epidemic.

New round in fight over People’s Pledge

The showdown between Ayotte and Hassan is one of the most high profile, expensive and negative Senate races in the country. And outside groups spent big bucks to blanket the state with attack ads.

On her Twitter page, Ayotte used the episode to once again make a pitch for a pledge that aims to limit ad spending by outside groups, and to blame Hassan for a breakdown in talks between the campaigns to come to an agreement.

“This is the problem with 3rd party ads & it’s why I signed the People’s Pledge to prevent these ads, but Gov Hassan refused to sign,” Ayotte wrote.

Ayotte first challenged Hassan to sign the Peoples Pledge in February.

The pledge is based on the 2012 agreement between then Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts and his Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren. It would require either candidate that benefits from third-party spending (from Super PACs, 501c4 groups, and other outside organizations) to folk over 50% of the cost of that ad buy to a charity of the opponent’s choosing.

Hassan’s campaign responded to Ayotte’s offer with what they called a “Strengthened New Hampshire Peoples Pledge” which would limit each campaign to a $15 million spending cap. Ayotte termed Hassan’s move disingenuous and turned down the counter proposal.

At the time Ayotte told NH1 News that “I offered Gov. Hassan the Peoples Pledge. It was the pledge that worked in Massachusetts in 2012. The same pledge that Sen. Shaheen offered. But it’s clear she doesn’t want to keep this outside spending out.”

“She could of with one stroke of a pen ended this, but I’m going to continue to focus on a positive campaign,” Ayotte added.

Hassan pushed back, telling NH1 News that “I support overturning Citizens United. And I’ve been a proponent of campaign finance reform. Both are things my opponent opposes. My opponent has had $8 million of outside spending spent on her behalf.”

What is One Nation

One Nation, a non-profit 501(c)(4) group, was formed in May of last year. Days after its launch, the group went up with a $325,000 ad buy to put up digital, radio, and print ads in New Hampshire highlighting Ayotte’s legislative accomplishments.

Last October the organization spent $1.4 million on TV, digital, and radio to run ads defending Ayotte’s record on women’s healthcare. In March the group once again spent big bucks to run a commercial highlighting Ayotte’s work on a bill dealing with the heroin and opioid crisis.

One Nation is linked to the pro-Republican American Crossroads super PAC and its non-profit Crossroads GPS, which were both co-founded and steered by Karl Rove, the mastermind behind President George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 election victories. The organization is run by Steven Law, who is also president of Crossroads. Law was also a former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

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