Bedford, N.H. – Kelly Ayotte meets me at Panera Bread, which, a campaign aide confides, is one of her favorite spots. Lodged in the corner of a concrete strip mall south of Manchester, Panera — a corporate chain — is part café, part “artisan” bakery, with plush chairs and gourmet grinds. When I arrive, I spot Ayotte in the back, smartly dressed with coffee in hand, milling about, a star among the soccer-mom set that crowds the booths.
Ayotte, 42, a former state attorney general, is in the midst of a tight primary campaign. With Sen. Judd Gregg retiring after three terms, a spot in the upper chamber is open, and Ayotte — along with businessmen Bill Binnie and Jim Bender, and Ovide Lamontagne, a former chairman of the state education board — is gunning to win the GOP nod on September 14. With the latest Rasmussen poll showing all four hopefuls beating congressman Paul Hodes, the Democrats’ presumptive nominee, the race for the Republican nomination has livened up an otherwise slow summer.
The narrative of the primary, until this week, has been static: Ayotte has been cast as the established, pro-life frontrunner — backed by Gregg and national Republicans such as Sen. Mitch McConnell. Binnie, the Scottish-born son of a janitor, is the entrepreneur and pro-choice moderate with a bushel of cash. Bender, a self-funder who’s inspired little buzz, has talked up his leadership at technology companies. And then there is Lamontagne, the GOP’s 1996 gubernatorial nominee, who has become a tea-party favorite but has struggled with fundraising. Though Ayotte, with $720,000 raised last quarter, has widely been seen by political insiders to have the best shot at the nomination, she has by no means been surging ahead. New Hampshire voters, of course, are notoriously flinty and take their time deciding.
Then, on Monday afternoon, Sarah Palin shook up the primary, taking to her Facebook page to dub Ayotte the country’s newest “mama grizzly” — Palin’s designation for “commonsense, conservative women” who are itching to stand up to the Obama agenda. (The club already included two of the country’s most notable female candidates this cycle — Nikki Haley, the GOP gubernatorial nominee in South Carolina, and Carly Fiorina, the Republican Senate nominee in California.) Palin wrote that she was impressed by Ayotte, a “daughter of the Granite State, a daughter of its public schools, and its first female attorney general,” and praised Ayotte’s “pro-life, pro-family, anti-tax constitutional” positions. Palin even took a shot at Binnie, who’s been blanketing the airwaves, calling him a “self-funded millionaire running with an ‘R’ next to his name who likes Obamacare and cap-and tax.”
Palin’s endorsement probably won’t hurt Ayotte, but it’s unclear how much it will boost her support. It helps her to shed the establishment rap in a year in which establishment-GOP ties have been the death knell for countless candidates, and it enables her to make a stronger case to the conservative, tea-party base while her primary foes scramble to adjust.
Still, in a state where voters are well-informed and suspicious of outside interference, Palin’s plug doesn’t sew anything up. “Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Kelly Ayotte for U.S. Senate should neither surprise nor upset the other campaigns,” cautioned Joseph McQuaid, the publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader, in a front-page editorial on Tuesday. “The race will be won by the candidate who impresses New Hampshire voters, and New Hampshire voters are rarely impressed by what outsiders have to say. . . . [Palin] spent a few hours here on one day during the 2008 presidential election. That’s still more time than she spent getting to know Ayotte, but it takes quite a bit longer to know New Hampshire. . . . Don’t fret over what a ‘Mama Grizzly’ from Alaska does. Right now, Granite Staters have more to worry about in keeping bears away from bird feeders.”
Former governor John H. Sununu, the chairman of the state party and former White House chief of staff to president George H. W. Bush, also raises an eyebrow about how much Palin’s grizzly-stamp will matter. “It’s important to put it in context,” he says. “We have four very good candidates running for the nomination. All are very conservative, pro-free-market, lower-spending people. Ovide has been endorsed by Dan Quayle, and Binnie has former senator Connie Mack, to name a few. It’s nice to be in New Hampshire politics — people like to come here, always have.”
While that may be, in a closely contested primary campaign, a hand from Palin matters for a candidate like Ayotte, argues James Pindell, publisher of NHPoliticalReport.com. “Ayotte entered the race a year ago in a worse position than even Trey Grayson and Charlie Crist,” he says, referencing two establishment candidates who have stumbled this year. “Here she was the pick of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, hiring staff from the NRSC and being backed by outgoing Sen. Judd Gregg, who is not beloved among local conservatives.”
“But something funny happened along the way,” Pindell tells us. “Ayotte never became Grayson or Crist. The base was always skeptical, but the real conservative in the race — Ovide Lamontagne — has become less and less of an option for them due to lackluster fundraising. With Palin’s seal of approval, the base now has the permission to fully back Ayotte. In a primary where she will be largely matched up against a pro-choice, pro-gay-rights candidate, it is exactly where she wants to be.” Neil Levesque, the executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, agrees. “This is a big, big endorsement,” he says. “It’s the talk of the town and all over the news. Not only has it garnered national attention, but among primary voters, it’s a meaningful signal.”
“We have a strong conservative message,” Ayotte says. “I’m interested in getting a core group of new leaders elected.” The tea party, she believes, wants fiscal responsibility, limited government, and adherence to the Constitution. “I stand with them on those issues, on protecting individual freedom,” she says. While she calls Palin a “conservative icon,” Ayotte adds that she also strongly identifies with Gregg, who “talks about the threat of the debt and deficits in a very articulate and cogent way.” In similar fashion, she says she wants to be a “strong conservative voice on those [fiscal] matters,” while also fighting for “traditional values” — in addition to her pro-life stance, she firmly believes in traditional marriage.
Though Palin’s Facebook post has thrust Ayotte into the headlines, the first-time candidate (she was appointed attorney general) has not had an entirely smooth run. After indicating that she’d support the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, Ayotte has some ground to recover on the right. There have been some other bumps in the road, too, most notably a bitter cross-party fight over Ayotte’s record as attorney general. Hodes has spent $300,000 on ads targeting Ayotte’s response to fraud while in office, calling her efforts lackluster. He points to a task force Ayotte’s office started in 2008 to go after mortgage fraud and says that she did not do enough to investigate Financial Resources Mortgage Inc., which was later found to be criminally bilking investors. Ayotte, for the most part, has weathered the charge, with FactCheck.org and numerous newspapers calling Hodes’s ad misleading. Nevertheless, questions about the bureaucratic breakdown linger, and Bender, her primary foe, has given a thumbs-up to Hodes’s spot.
Ayotte notes that since May, nearly 11,000 e-mails from her time in office have been released and that “if this matter had come to my desk, I would have pursued it vigorously. . . . I believe in open and transparent government.” She has also testified about the matter before a joint state house and senate oversight committee, where she reminded the panel that due to state law, the complaints about the fraud were brought to the state banking and securities department, not her office. The e-mail releases, she adds, have “gone above and beyond” what the law requires. “I was a very active and involved attorney general,” she says. “Paul Hodes is running negative ads because he does not have a primary. He is weighing in on our primary, trying to knock me, because he doesn’t want to run against me. If I run against him, I will beat him.”
As she sips her coffee, Ayotte smiles and says that the spotlight on her record has not always been unwelcome. “I am a leader who has been tough on crime,” she says, detailing her work in obtaining a capital-murder conviction and death-penalty sentence following the slaying of a Manchester police officer three years ago. She also cites her past defense of a New Hampshire law that required minors who seek an abortion to notify their parents — a part of her record praised by Palin.
Ultimately, Ayotte says, the primary will not come down to endorsements or attacks, but on primary voters’ judgment as to who is best positioned to fight the Obama agenda. “I got into this race because I was sick and tired of yelling at the television about the direction this country was moving,” she laughs. It was not an easy decision, the Nashua native says, with two small children at home and a busy husband, an Iraq veteran who runs their small landscaping business and serves in the National Guard. The family, which she describes as “middle class,” went “from two incomes to one.”
Sounding quite Palin-esque, Ayotte continues, noting that she was “angry with President Obama for apologizing for America” and with the Democratic Congress for “mortgaging my children’s future.” Instead of “continuing to yell, I decided to roll up my sleeves, resign my job, and do this. . . . The administration was taking us away from some of the fundamental values that have made us great,” she says. “We need to stop the unprecedented expansion of government, appeasing our enemies, and creating an entitlement culture.”
Ayotte may be a “mama grizzly,” but in New Hampshire, you don’t know what’ll happen until Election Day. “Lamontagne has his strong base identification, plus a core group of 25,000 to 30,000 who will head to the polls for him, and I think he can bridge the money gap. Bender is making inroads, too,” notes Tom Rath, a longtime New Hampshire GOP strategist. “With Binnie attacking Ayotte — and that pair snipes at each other daily — there may soon be room for one of the challengers to rise. The big variable, as always, will be turnout — and people are just starting to pay attention.”
– Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.