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Capital Beat: Ayotte takes heat for background-checks vote, but 2016’s a long way away

Is U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte taking heat for her vote this month against expanded background checks? Absolutely.

The Republican has been targeted by an avalanche of letters to the editor and newspapers editorials . A national gun-control group is airing a radio ad with a woman sneering that “it sure didn’t take long for her to ‘go Washington.’ ” A Democratic polling firm took a survey after the vote showing Ayotte with a negative approval rating in the state.

“New Hampshire is a good bellwether for fallout from the gun vote,” said Dean Debnam, Public Policy Polling’s president, in a statement. “There’s serious backlash from voters toward Kelly Ayotte for how she handled this issue.”

But does all this mean she’s vulnerable in the next election? That’s a tough sell, especially since she won’t be up for re-election until 2016.

“If there’s going to be a hit, it’s probably only going to be in the short term for now. ... By the time she’s up for re-election, there will probably be a lot more proximate issues,” said Dean Spiliotes, a political analyst and civic scholar at Southern New Hampshire University. “It’ll probably come up, but whether it’ll have the same impact ... is hard to say.”

Most Republican senators and a few Democrats voted the same way Ayotte did April 17, when she opposed a proposal to require background checks at gun shows and for firearm purchases over the internet. She supported an alternative proposal to reform the background-checks system, which also failed.

Polls show strong support in New Hampshire for expanded background checks, though there are plenty of gun-rights activists happy with her stand. “I think she took a vote that really resonated with the base up here,” said Republican strategist Jim Merrill.

But Ayotte was one of the last senators to announce her position on the legislation, and one of the deciding votes to block the proposal. That’s made her a target, and the response from gun-control advocates has been both loud and harsh.

Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group founded by ex-congresswoman Gabby Giffords and husband Mark Kelly, began airing a 60-second radio ad in New Hampshire last week attacking Ayotte.

And PPP’s poll, taken April 19-21 with a 3.2 percent margin of error, showed 44 percent of New Hampshire voters approving of the job Ayotte’s doing, versus 46 percent who said they disapprove.

In a potential 2016 race against Gov. Maggie Hassan, the poll found, Ayotte would be two points down.

A different poll out last week, from the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, showed Ayotte in better shape, with 50 percent of adults saying they had a favorable opinion of her and 25 percent saying they had an unfavorable opinion.

But that poll, which had a 4.4 percent margin of error, was taken April 4-9, before the background-checks vote. (Its release was delayed due to the Boston Marathon bombings.)

UNH pollster Andy Smith doesn’t think the results would have been much different after the vote.

“I would think it would have very little effect,” Smith said. “My sense is that most people couldn’t tell you who their senator or congressman is, much less how they voted on a particular issue.”

Democrats, at least, will be reminding people about this particular vote for a while. But 2016 is a long way away, and opponents of gun-control legislation tend to be both better organized and more engaged than its supporters, noted Dick Swett, a Democrat and former congressman who knows something about the politics of gun control.

In 1994, Swett voted for a ban on assault weapons that passed the U.S. House by just two votes. A few months later, he lost his seat to Republican Charlie Bass, a loss he credits to his vote for the ban.

Whether Ayotte’s vote on background checks has legs for the next three years, he said, has a lot to do with whether she sets a pattern of siding with national conservatives against public opinion in her own state.

“If Kelly continues to pick sides like this, on very extreme positions, I think she’s going to be in real trouble, and she’s going to be perceived as not acting in the interests of New Hampshire citizens,” Swett said.