Ayotte Rising, but Is There a Risk?
U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte holds a town hall meeting in Warren.
Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte held a town hall meeting on Thursday, October 24, 2013, in Hudson.
(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
Concord — In less than five years, Kelly Ayotte has gone from being the appointed attorney general of a small state to a rising star in the U.S. Senate and the national Republican Party.
So where could she be in another five or 10 years?
Senior New Hampshire Republicans acknowledge that Ayotte’s high profile and frequent appearances on Sunday talk shows reflect the fact that she provides a fresh, female face for the GOP as well as her credentials: a New Englander with conservative bona fides, a potential bridge-builder in a divided Senate, an articulate former prosecutor.
“She has the ability to go carry the message. No longer can they say the Republicans are a bunch of old, grumpy white men,” said Joel Maiola, longtime chief of staff to senator, governor and congressman Judd Gregg. “Now they have someone who can be the role model for the Republican Senate, and Kelly fills that void and does it very well.”
That gives her options. Allies say she’s not positioning herself with an eye to national office, but Ayotte was mentioned last year as a potential vice presidential candidate and she spent time stumping for Mitt Romney in the key swing states of Pennsylvania and Ohio.
“She’s young. She could have a long career. Sometimes Republicans are going to be in the majority, sometimes they’re going to be in the minority. And at some point, Republicans may win back the White House,” said Dean Spiliotes, civic scholar at Southern New Hampshire University. “So there’s going to be a lot of opportunities.”
At 45, Ayotte could have a spot on shortlists for vice president and Cabinet posts in a Republican White House for decades to come — assuming she can ride the rapids of New Hampshire and GOP politics. She’s made enemies at home on both the left and right, and Tea Party conservatives appear increasingly frustrated with her.
Ayotte, for the record, says her focus remains on the Senate. But she’s not ruling anything out.
“What I would like to do is to continue serving New Hampshire,” she said in an interview Thursday. “I’m very honored that people would think about me for other positions of higher office, but my focus is going to be on continuing to serve New Hampshire in the Senate. And I think it’s kind of presumptuous to think that I will be considered for those positions.”
Ayotte added, with a chuckle, “I don’t put a lot of weight in it, truthfully.”
A Quick Rise
The attorneys general in 43 states are elected statewide, making the job a popular step to higher office. It’s an appointed post in New Hampshire, but one that’s proven useful for a handful of politicians: Warren Rudman went on to the U.S. Senate, and Steve Merrill moved up to the governor’s office.
Add Ayotte to that list.
A Nashua native, she became attorney general in 2004 and left office in 2009 as she prepared to make her first run for elected office. She emerged in 2010 from a crowded Republican field to win the GOP nomination and defeat Democratic congressman Paul Hodes for the Senate seat being vacated by Gregg.
She has risen fast — “not quite Ted Cruz speed, but I think she’ll have more longevity, potentially,” said Spiliotes, referring to the Texas Republican who was a national Tea Party favorite even before arriving in the Senate this year.
Ayotte has gained attention by joining longtime Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to advocate on foreign policy and military issues, including the Sept. 11, 2012, attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four U.S. citizens. (All three serve on the Armed Services Committee.)
“She’s been very effective in sensing where the big issues are and inserting herself in a way that gains visibility without pigeonholing herself or boxing herself in,” Spiliotes said.
Most recently, she gained attention during this month’s 16-day government shutdown and debt-ceiling showdown as a vocal critic of lawmakers, including Cruz and many House Republicans, who were unbending in their demands that the 2010 health care reform law championed by President Obama be delayed or defunded.
In a closed-door Senate Republican caucus during the shutdown, she led what one anonymous senator described to The New York Times as a “lynch mob” attacking Cruz for his actions. And she was one of the first senators to join Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins’ effort to negotiate an end to the shutdown, earning praise from newspaper editorial boards across New Hampshire and beyond.
“I think she’s being a senator in the finest New Hampshire tradition, which is she has a first-class mind, she studies the issues … and she calls them as she sees them,” said Steve Duprey, a member of the Republican National Committee and former chairman of the state GOP. “And she’s gotten prominence because of that.”
In some ways she’s eclipsed New Hampshire’s senior senator, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen. One telling metric: Since taking office in January 2011, Ayotte has made 14 appearances on nationally televised Sunday talk shows. Shaheen will be on CBS’s Face the Nation today in her first Sunday show appearance since November 2009.
Ayotte’s newfound fame isn’t an accident, Duprey said.
“She’s happened to be involved in some important and hot button issues. … But I think, quite frankly, she’s been on TV a fair amount because, in the Republican Party, we don’t have a lot of women senators,” he said.
Trouble at Home?
Ayotte says New Hampshire is always her first priority, but she’s also started playing on the national stage.
Romney reportedly considered her for the vice presidential slot on the GOP ticket last year, and she stumped for the nominee in Ohio and Pennsylvania during the fall campaign.
That’s hasn’t damped speculation that Ayotte may have her eye on national office — even though, Duprey said, that isn’t her goal.
“She ran for the U.S. Senate to tackle the debt and the deficit. She loves being a senator, and nothing she is doing in Washington is calculation with her eye on any bigger thing,” Duprey said. “It’s entertaining, but it’s not a thing.”
But, Maiola said, Ayotte may not need to strain to be in the mix.
“I think Kelly doesn’t need to promote herself for these positions. I think, because of the good job she does, she’s going to always be part of those conversation,” he said.
In the meantime, though, Ayotte could face trouble at home.
Her poll numbers have dropped over the last six months, according to the University of New Hampshire’s Granite State Poll. In that time, she enraged many liberals and moderates by voting against expanded background checks for gun purchases, and angered many conservatives by supporting an immigration reform bill.
In a poll taken April 4-9, 50 percent of residents had a favorable opinion of her compared with 25 percent who had an unfavorable opinion, with a 4.4 percent margin of error. In a poll taken Oct. 7-16, 41 percent had a favorable opinion versus 31 percent with an unfavorable opinion, with a 3.8 percent margin of error.
She has lost support mainly among Republicans and independents, according to the polls — down 15 percentage points among self-described conservatives, down 8 percentage points among moderates and down just 1 percentage point among liberals. As for Tea Party supporters, 58 percent had a favorable opinion of Ayotte in October, down 23 percentage points from April, when 81 percent liked her.
Earlier this month, at a conference in Manchester organized by Citizens for a Strong New Hampshire, conservative talk radio host Howie Carr asked the crowd what they thought of Ayotte. He was met with boos.
“You have to be extremely disappointed in her actions over the last few months, don’t you?” Carr said, according to a video of the event posted online by the conservative blog Granite Grok.
Democrats haven’t stopped hammering Ayotte, either. Harrell Kirstein, spokesman for the state Democratic Party, said her votes for immigration reform and to reopen the government don’t change what he described as a pattern of Ayotte peddling “right-wing Tea Party myths” about the health care law.
“Even a broken clock is right twice a day,” Kirstein said, “and just like clockwork, the first thing Sen. Ayotte did after the shutdown vote was to attack Obamacare.”
Ayotte won’t be up for re-election until 2016. But when she is, she could face a credible Democratic candidate in Gov. Maggie Hassan, assuming Hassan wins a second term next year.
But Ayotte said she’s not worried about her record.
“The people in New Hampshire, they sent me to Washington to make decisions on difficult issues, and sometimes … challenging and controversial issues,” she said.
“I will study the issue carefully, I’ll make a decision and I will tell them why I made the decision. … I expect that if I’m doing my job and making decisions, that it won’t be possible to keep everyone happy with me all the time.”
Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 603-369-3307 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.