MEREDITH, N.H. — At Twin Barns Brewing Co., perched near the shoreline of Lake Winnipesaukee, Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., sampled some of the signature product on a recent afternoon, then chased it with a promise to fight for more reliable internet service, which the owners said they needed to maintain their customer base.
“If you are a young professional and you’ve discovered over the 18 months of the pandemic that you don’t actually have to be in the office — you can work remotely — this is a perfect work-life balance,” said Dave Picarillo, co-owner of the brewery and restaurant, which has seen an uptick in business as people have decamped to New Hampshire’s Lakes region during the pandemic. “But without broadband and cellular, that will never happen.”
As she tried a tasty blonde ale, Hassan assured Picarillo and his partner, Bruce Walton, that she was on the case. She was part of a bipartisan group of senators who were working to speed a compromise infrastructure plan that included new broadband funding to President Joe Biden’s desk — whether or not her party was able to push through a second, broader package of Democratic initiatives.
“I think you’ve got to get things done when you have the opportunity,” said Hassan, a former two-term governor seeking a second Senate term.
Hassan is the moderate Senate Democrat and potential swing vote few people in Washington talk about. She does not make waves or grab headlines like Sens. Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema, her colleagues from West Virginia and Arizona, who draw much attention as the centrists most likely to defect from their party. Her every utterance is not parsed for significance about what it means for legislative progress. Reporters don’t throng around her.
And that’s no accident, she said: “I just like to keep my head down and get work done.”
Yet while she tries to fly under the radar, what happens in Congress in the next few months as Democrats and Biden try to enact their ambitious agenda will probably do more to determine her future than either Manchin’s or Sinema’s. Unlike those two Democrats, Hassan will be on the ballot in a swing state next year, during a midterm cycle that is traditionally unkind to members of the president’s party.
“I think she will, to a large extent next year, rise or fall with Joe Biden, his numbers and how New Hampshire voters will feel about the economy,” said Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire.
Even more than those factors, her political future could turn on whether Chris Sununu, the popular Republican governor and a member of one of the state’s most prominent political families, decides to answer the call from his party to jump into the race. He would be a formidable opponent and immediately transform the New Hampshire race into a marquee contest, placing Hassan among the most threatened incumbents as Democrats try to retain their extremely fragile hold on the Senate.
“If the race is with Sununu — and I don’t know if it is Sununu — it is going to be a tough one,” said Thomas D. Rath, a former state attorney general in New Hampshire and a longtime Republican force in the state.
Sununu, whose father was a former governor and White House chief of staff and whose brother was a U.S. senator, has not tipped his hand on whether he will run despite entreaties from Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, and others who believe he gives them by far the best chance of taking the seat as they battle for the majority. He has expressed some qualms about jumping into the Washington maelstrom, including losing the executive power that comes with being a governor to join a legislative body.
“I’m a manager, I’m an executive,” Sununu said this past week on the New Hampshire Journal podcast. “There are very few of those in Washington,” he said, adding that he also has to determine, “is it the right path for my family? I have kids to put through college, and all that kind of stuff.”
Still, the betting in both New Hampshire and Washington is that the governor, whose office declined an interview request, will make the race, finding it too hard to resist the opportunity.
As for Hassan, she said the governor’s plans were not a factor in her own.
“I don’t know, and it doesn’t really change my work,” she said last week when asked whether she thought Sununu would run. “I’m proud of what I’ve done, and I will make my case to the people of New Hampshire.”
While she may be low-key in Washington, Hassan has been a fixture in New Hampshire politics for almost two decades, serving in the state Senate as majority leader and twice winning races for governor before toppling Kelly Ayotte, the incumbent Republican senator, by just over 1,000 votes in 2016. Her allies say that Republicans have consistently underestimated Hassan, and will likely do so again.
“She has got chops when it comes to winning tough races, and it has not just been one tough race,” said Kathy Sullivan, a former chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. “She works very hard at it.”Republicans are already trying to paint Hassan as a loyal acolyte of Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader. They say her low profile — one called her “invisible” — is a sign of ineffectiveness.
“We think with the way things are trending with the Democratic Party moving hard to the left, the outlook for 2022 and potentially a very strong challenger that this is a very winnable race for us,” said T.W. Arrighi, a spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
As she prepares for a likely onslaught, Hassan is emphasizing her bipartisan record, hoping it resonates with the famously independent voters of New Hampshire. As governor, Hassan found ways to work with Republican-controlled legislatures to approve state budgets and expand Medicaid coverage. She said she was now trying to apply that same approach in the Senate.
She has teamed up with Republicans on a variety of issues, including tax assistance for small businesses, money for rural broadband and a crackdown on surprise medical billing included in a major funding bill last year. Now she is part of the group negotiating a bipartisan public works bill that Biden has hailed as a breakthrough.
“We think it is really important for the country to see where we have common ground and see us really trying to work across party lines,” she said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.