Battle for Senate: Ayotte locked in tight NH contest

New Hampshire is accustomed to playing a big role in the presidential primaries – but this year, the state has one of the tightest and most-closely watched Senate races as well.

Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte is battling a challenge from Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, and polls show the candidates – both with strong name recognition – in a virtual dead heat.

The latest RealClearPolitics polling average has Hassan just 1 point ahead of Ayotte.

“New Hampshire is, again, at the front-line of politics – and not only with the presidential primaries, but this will come down to just a razor-edge margin,” Director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics Neil Levesque told Fox News.

The race is one of several being closely watched as Democrats fight to wrest control of the chamber from Republicans. Part of the reason the contest is so close may be New Hampshire’s strong independent streak -- but also the fact that the race features a sitting senator and governor, both popular with voters.

New Hampshire Democrats outnumber Republicans, but Ayotte, a first-term senator, is working to show bipartisanship on issues like gun control and veterans care. She’s also stood out as a tough voice on national security, especially when it comes to her criticism of plans to shutter the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

But Democrats have criticized her for opposing hearings on Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.

Hassan, meanwhile, casts herself as a champion for protecting Social Security and Medicare and has highlighted the importance of combatting the state’s opioid and heroin epidemic.

“These are not political amateurs,” Levesque said. “Both the governor and Senator Ayotte are very in tune with the appetite of the electorate, and Senator Ayotte may have met enough people and shaken enough hands over the years to really make a difference in her campaign.”

No matter how it shakes out, Levesque predicted the state’s other senator, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, can easily work with either the incumbent or her challenger.

But right now, Shaheen is backing fellow Democrat Hassan.

“Maggie Hassan isn’t afraid to stand up to Donald Trump,” Shaheen told Fox News. “She’s got a record of standing and fighting for what’s right.”

The political future of both candidates may be tied in part to the presidential race. Both Ayotte and Hassan received endorsements from their party’s respective presidential nominees—which has the potential to help, or to hurt, their campaigns.

Trump endorsed Ayotte on Aug. 5, after initially holding back his endorsement for her and other prominent lawmakers including House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Ayotte told Fox News she will not reciprocate his endorsement, but she will vote for the businessman in November.

“I’ve said clearly I’m going to be voting for him. I’m not endorsing him,” Ayotte told Fox News. “I have disagreements with him that I’ve been quite vocal about and I’ll continue to do that.”

On the other side of the aisle, Hassan has received an endorsement from Hillary Clinton, and she has returned the support.

“I support Hillary Clinton because she and I have been working for the same thing,” Hassan told Fox News. “Expanding middle class opportunities, helping small businesses, and keeping our country safe.”

Both Ayotte and Hassan have consistently high favorability ratings, and are widely liked throughout the Granite State. According to Levesque, one thing is for sure: “No matter what happens in November, New Hampshire is going to lose one great elected official.”

Fox News’ Rick Leventhal contributed to this report.