Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire is the gun-control crowd’s latest target. At town halls last week, they tried to rattle her, and irate protesters toted signs scrawled with “Shame.” But it’s doubtful that Ayotte will suddenly buckle under pressure and support an expansion of background checks, mere weeks after voting against such legislation.
For one, Ayotte has never played the role of your typical New England Republican moderate — think Susan Collins or Scott Brown. Yes, she’s friendly with dealmakers such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham, but her alliances with them are almost entirely on national-security issues. On domestic issues, Ayotte, a former prosecutor and state attorney general, is rather conservative, with an A rating from the National Rifle Association. One of her most prominent supporters is none other than Sarah Palin.
That prosecutorial experience has buoyed her during this latest debate. Before being appointed New Hampshire attorney general, Ayotte was chief of the homicide unit in the AG’s office. Her reputation from those years, when she tenaciously went after cop killers, remains the keystone of her political persona. She often refers to that experience when speaking at political events — and she’s empathetic without getting drawn into the emotion of the issue, much in the same way she once handled tricky murder cases. When she says that improving the mental-health system will do more than heightened background checks to prevent future gun violence, people take her seriously.
Ayotte is also not the type to embrace bipartisanship for its own sake — especially on a controversial bill, such as the Toomey-Manchin effort. She’s not part of the Gang of Eight on immigration; on taxes, she toes the conservative-Republican line. If a bill isn’t strictly a fiscal reform or related to the military, it’s unlikely to draw her interest.
Her hesitation to follow in the footsteps of past Yankee moderates is driven, at least in part, by state Republican politics. Though derided these days by the Left as an unreasonable right-winger, Ayotte is actually quite sensitive about her conservative bona fides. During her first and only campaign — her 2010 Senate race — many activists worried that she’d be a unreliable establishment Republican. On guns, they liked the fact that she opposed a ban on so-called assault weapons, but wondered why, as AG, she didn’t support a “Stand Your Ground” proposal. Ever since, she has taken care to avoid the RINO label.
The MSNBC punditocracy and progressives who have parachuted into her state to complain do not seem to be voices that figure into Ayotte’s political calculus. If anything does nudge her, it’s the letters, e-mails, and phone calls from her state’s thousands of gun owners, which, I hear from sources in her camp, have been coming in in droves.
Ayotte is keenly aware, friends say, that she represents the “Live Free or Die” state, and that although the blowback against her vote has been rough — she has dropped by double digits in the polls — it would probably be even worse if she angered New Hampshire’s gun enthusiasts. Being attacked on the air is one thing; a primary challenge is another.
History is part of Ayotte’s consideration. Two decades ago, Dick Swett, a New Hampshire Democratic congressman, backed a bill to ban assault weapons. Shortly afterward, according to the New York Times, Swett started to wear a bulletproof vest because of the death threats he was getting. Two years later, he ran for the Senate and lost — and NRA members were cited as the bloc that got away. In contrast, the NRA has been airing ads this month cheering Ayotte for supporting gun rights.
The state’s most influential newspaper, the Union Leader, has defended Ayotte as she has dealt with the national (and negative) media attention. “It’s a testament to the Senate that a majority of its members, including Ayotte, did not cave to such bullying,” the editors wrote in a recent editorial. The state’s conservative leaders have also backed her. Though mostly unnoted, Republicans held up “I support Kelly” signs at the same town halls where there were people with “Shame” posters jeering her.
Ayotte, however, continues to be a figure of fascination for liberals, who can’t believe that she — with her warm personality and New England roots — could possibly be aligned with their bête noire, the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre. They still hold out hope that somehow, if the clamor builds, she can be flipped. “Is it even more surprising when a woman votes against this, just from a very primal [perspective]?” asked an incredulous Donny Deutsch on MSNBC last week. Others have raised similar questions.
Yet a closer look at Ayotte’s politics show her to be much more of a conservative than most liberal commentators and their allies in the gun-control ranks realize. Her vote against background checks may have infuriated them, but it shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.