Politics & Policy

Kelly Ayotte’s Fight for Political Survival

(Mark Wilson/Getty)

The starting gates for the New Hampshire Senate race opened last week when the state’s Democratic governor, Maggie Hassan, announced her bid for Republican Kelly Ayotte’s seat. It wasn’t a surprise to anyone, least of all Ayotte herself, who for months now has been priming her war chest for what is slated to be one of the marquee matchups of 2016. The race is a genuine toss-up in a cycle where those are few and far between, and it could determine whether Republicans keep their slim majority in the Senate.

The biggest roadblock to Ayotte’s reelection is out of her hands. Battleground states such as New Hampshire typically enjoy a higher turnout of Democratic voters in presidential-election years, and Democratic leaders, who scored big by recruiting the popular 57-year-old governor to the race, are prepared to capitalize. Hassan has opened her campaign with strong fundraising numbers, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee wasted no time endorsing her, meaning she’ll have plenty of institutional support should she need it.

The wheels are in motion for a strong battle from the left. But Ayotte, 47, will also have to survive challenges from her own party.

She’s charted a rapid course since her first day in office in 2010, rising from a little-known former state attorney general to somebody John McCain calls “one of the most influential members of the Republican Party” and a potential vice-presidential nominee. She’s quickly scaled the ranks of the Senate Armed Services committee, which McCain chairs, burnishing the national-security acumen that has become her calling card. “They used to call [former Connecticut senator] Joe Lieberman, [South Carolina senator] Lindsey Graham, and me the ‘three amigos,’” McCain says with a laugh. “Now they’re saying she’s the third amigo.”

But whether there’s an appetite for a maverick-type like Ayotte, who ranks as the Senate’s seventh most bipartisan member, is unclear. The tea-party wing of the GOP has celebrated some major victories lately, including the resignation of House Speaker John Boehner and the withdrawal of House majority leader Kevin McCarthy from the race to succeed him, and they’ve wasted no time criticizing Ayotte’s record, which includes her support for the Gang of Eight immigration bill, the resurrection of the Export-Import Bank, and other proposals conservative activists loathe. Ultimately, her candidacy is caught between a Democratic party that will “walk over broken glass to get her out,” as New Hampshire political strategist Ryan Williams puts it, and a GOP in the throes of internecine strife.

It’s a tenuous moment for Ayotte, but when I catch up with her on Capitol Hill, she doesn’t show it. She’s just returned from a vote on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which would allow $38 billion of war funding to bypass congressional budget caps, and which President Obama is threatening to veto. If he does, it’ll be the first time in 53 years that the NDAA doesn’t pass into law. For Armed Services Committee members, especially those facing reelection campaigns, it’s crunch time. But Ayotte looks relaxed in a tailored black blazer with square gold buttons, her raven-red hair straight and her expression inviting.

Ayotte grew up in Nashua, N.H., where she still lives today with her husband, Joseph Daley — an Iraq War veteran and former A-10 pilot — and their two children. Her parents divorced when she was young. With no college degree, her mother, Kathleen, worked her way up from customer-service representative to lobbyist at New Hampshire’s Sheehan Phinney Capitol Group. Her father, Marc, now retired, was a software engineer at Hewlett-Packard.

After earning a B.A. in political science from Penn State and a J.D. from Villanova, Ayotte joined the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office as a prosecutor in 1998. She says it convinced her to pursue a lifelong career in public service. “I don’t come from a political family,” she says. “This wasn’t something I had ambitions of growing up.” But she says her work in handling criminal cases made her realize “what drove me every day was an ability to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Six years later, Governor Craig Benson appointed Ayotte as the state’s first female attorney general. She made waves quickly. In 2008, she prosecuted a high-profile capital-murder trial against Michael Addison, who had shot and killed Manchester police officer Michael Briggs. The case resulted in the first death sentence issued in New Hampshire since 1959. Briggs’s family would later appear in television ads for Ayotte’s first Senate campaign.

Her career, along with her military family, groomed her for the role she plays today as a leader on security and defense issues in Congress. She won her Senate seat with a campaign emphasizing that “keeping the nation safe is the most fundamental function of government.” Her freshman term has been a testament to that. She says she’s proudest of legislation she co-sponsored with New Hampshire’s senior senator, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, to give Granite State veterans the option of receiving private health care if they don’t live within 20 miles of a full-service VA hospital. She also co-sponsored the bipartisan Never Contract with the Enemy Act, which makes it easier for federal contracting officials to void contracts with terrorist ties.

In her race against Hassan, Ayotte plans to play up her hawkish credentials. Today, she says, “we face threats from bad actors around the world, whether it’s ISIS, al-Qaeda, or Iran in its attempts to acquire nuclear weapons,” making leaders who understand the nuances of national security more crucial than ever.

“It’s a very dangerous time around the world, and the Senate has a very important foreign-policy function,” she says. “It’s critical that whoever is going to serve in this body [has] an understanding of that.”

This will be her clearest advantage over Hassan, says Fergus Cullen, a former chair of the New Hampshire Republican party. “In the world we live in today, this issue is going to matter,” Cullen says. “It’s hard to imagine anyone outdoing Kelly on [national security].” (Hassan, for her part, has repeatedly voiced support for the Iran nuclear deal, which Ayotte vehemently opposes.)

It’s easy to see how, despite being one of the youngest members of the Senate and its second-youngest woman, Ayotte has become the “third amigo” to fellow defense doyens McCain and Graham. But her friendship with two of the most famous Republican mavericks in Congress gives some conservatives pause. In a political climate where the outsider reigns, and principle trumps pragmatism for the party’s base, Ayotte — who broke with the GOP majority 20 percent of the time last year, second only to Maine’s Susan Collins — is vulnerable.

Former New Hampshire state senator Jim Luther condemned Ayotte for confirming Loretta Lynch as attorney general this spring. He cautions that, “You can’t just be conservative on national security.”

“There are a lot of things I like about Kelly, but there are also a lot of concerns,” Luther says. “People here are suspicious that she’s gotten too close to McCain and Graham, and that it’s influenced her voting record. They’re fed up with the insiders of Washington.”

Ayotte illustrated the divide between herself and conservative activists explicitly last month, when she called out Ted Cruz for trying to defund Planned Parenthood at the risk of a government shutdown. After Senate Democrats defeated a budget bill stripping the organization’s federal funding, Cruz led the charge urging members to stand firm against restoring the funds — even if it led to a shutdown when appropriations ran out on September 30. 

Though Ayotte is pro-life — she holds a 100 percent rating from National Right to Life — she publicly accused Cruz of political theater, demanding to know what he hoped to accomplish, especially given Obama’s repeated vow to veto any bill defunding Planned Parenthood. “During the last government shutdown, I repeatedly asked you what your strategy for success was when we did not have the votes to achieve the goal of defunding Obamacare,” she wrote in an open letter. “I am again asking this question and would appreciate you sharing your strategy for success.”

Ayotte’s bipartisan record may be a boon to her reelection chances, even if it means that, as Hynes says, ‘a small but vocal group of conservatives here don’t trust her.’

For Jeff Lord, former White House political director for Ronald Reagan, the move describes what Margaret Thatcher meant by “socialist ratcheting.” “The government keeps ratcheting left, and the only thing conservatives will do is try to keep it contained, rather than actively moving it in a conservative direction,” Lord says. “Ayotte needs to decide whether she’s willing to stand up and do that.”

“It makes you perceive her as timid,” he adds. “We’re in a political moment where people want the real thing.”

Such criticisms reflect the increasing polarization of the GOP in Washington. If Ayotte is looking to seal a No. 2 spot on the national ticket, they may prove an obstacle. They also underscore why her race with Hassan is so close. Ayotte’s approval rating among New Hampshire Republicans is lower than it could be — the latest WMUR Granite State poll has her at 74 percent — meaning her margin-of-error edge over Hassan right now comes not from her own party, but the fact that she’s picking off a slightly larger percentage of Democrats than Hassan is Republicans.

And at any rate, says one New Hampshire state senator, “No Republican is going to stay home on Election Day if it means Hassan will win.”

Hassan, who is in her second term as governor, launched New Hampshire into something of a fiasco earlier this year when she vetoed the state budget, leading to a three-month stalemate in which Hassan held a hard line against Republicans who wanted phased-in business-tax cuts. She finally relented at the end of September, passing a budget into law that many say is a carbon copy of the one she originally vetoed.

“She’s the first governor to have to lobby her own party to override her veto,” Williams says. “But she caved because she had a timetable to run for Senate. . . . It’s been the worst-kept secret that Hassan has had one foot out the door last year ever since winning reelection.”

The budget has been a buzzy topic in New Hampshire politics as of late, but Hassan’s campaign doesn’t expect it to be a roadblock. “Republicans are rewriting history weeks after history took place,” says Kathy Sullivan, who volunteers as treasurer for the Hassan campaign. “That’s proven by the fact that Hassan is a very popular governor.”

Indeed, Hassan has strong favorability ratings, bolstered by her legalization of medical marijuana and her decision to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. But so does Ayotte. According to Patrick Hynes, a New Hampshire political strategist, the race will be determined by the structure of a presidential election year, and by which candidate can make the best case that she will put her state’s interests before Washington’s.

“The plurality of voters here are undeclared,” Hynes says, “and they’re growing tired of straight party politics. Kelly is the incumbent, and you’d think there would be a disadvantage there, but the way Governor Hassan has played the budget issue over the last few months . . . it’s going to make a lot of people reconsider.”

In that respect, Ayotte’s bipartisan record may be a boon to her reelection chances, even if it means that, as Hynes says, “a small but vocal group of conservatives here don’t trust her.” If anything, then, the Hassan campaign is helping Ayotte by painting her as a conservative extremist whose opposition to Medicaid expansion and abortion, in particular, put her to the right of the majority of New Hampshire voters.

Right now, Ayotte and Hassan are in a statistical tie.

“Every election, you run as hard as you can and work as hard as you can,” Ayotte says. “That’s what I’m going to do.”

As Judy Reardon, a New Hampshire political reporter and longtime Senator Shaheen ally, puts it, “It’s going to be a dogfight.”

— Elaina Plott is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.

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