New Hampshire senator Kelly Ayotte has spent years staking out her own spot within the Republican party, taking care not to become closely aligned with Washington insiders or Tea Party activists. But when she filed for re-election on Wednesday, Democrats tied her directly to a new Republican faction no one foresaw a year ago: Donald Trump’s.
With Trump’s ascent to the top of the GOP ticket, Ayotte’s path to re-election has become more fraught, as already-divided New Hampshire Republicans fragment even further and Democrats gleefully strive to link her to the flamboyant New Yorker.
New Hampshire has not had a Republican governor in more than a decade, which makes Ayotte, as the state’s highest-ranking elected Republican since 2010, her party’s figurehead by default. In the Senate, she has cut an independent, center-right profile. Among Republican senators, her lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union (68) puts her at the moderate end of the spectrum. The conservative Heritage Action PAC gives her just a 26 percent rating, less than half the Senate Republican average of 59 percent.
Ayotte has earned those relatively low marks by breaking with those to her right. In 2013 and again last year, she vocally opposed Ted Cruz’s efforts to maneuver for a government shutdown. In November of 2014, she publicly supported moderate Republican Gene Chandler for New Hampshire House speaker over conservative former speaker Bill O’Brien, making a permanent enemy of O’Brien and alienating some of his allies.
Ayotte’s independent path and her centrist votes on issues such as the confirmation of Attorney General Loretta Lynch, funding of the Export-Import Bank, and the 2015 federal budget have dismayed some conservative activists in the state and fueled challenges from within her party.
Former Republican state senator Jim Rubens, a social moderate and environmental activist, is running against Ayotte in the primary. Aaron Day, a “liberty” activist who has accused Ayotte and other New Hampshire Republicans of corruption, filed on Friday to run against her as an independent in the general election.
Trump’s rise further complicates the race by redefining the political space in which Ayotte has operated since her election. Ayotte is accustomed to occupying a comfortable spot between conservative activists and the Washington establishment, a populist space that Trump has taken for himself. To maintain her independence, she suddenly has to distance herself from three factions, rather than two.
That such a feat of triangulation will be difficult became apparent in May, when Trump clinched the Republican nomination. Ayotte’s campaign spokesperson, Liz Johnson, told WMUR-TV simply that “Kelly plans to support the nominee,” before making clear that she had not endorsed and would not endorse anyone at the top of the ticket.
Democrats had previously tried to tie Ayotte to Charles and David Koch, the libertarian-leaning billionaire industrialists, even though the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-backed free-market advocacy organization, declined to help her this year after expressing disappointment in her voting record. Now that she has indicated her willingness to support Trump, the Democrats are portraying her as a Trump clone. As she filed for re-election on Wednesday, Democrats outside waved signs that read “Ayotte = Trump.”
Both the state Democratic party and the campaign of Democratic governor Maggie Hassan, who is challenging Ayotte this fall, have tried to tie the senator to Trump’s controversial positions and statements.
Ayotte is accustomed to occupying a comfortable spot between conservative activists and the Washington establishment, a populist space that Trump has taken for himself.
Even the Ayotte campaign appears to think that getting too close to Trump will hurt the senator. Otherwise, why not fully embrace him? Ayotte’s support-but-not-endorse position highlights just how much Trump complicates the race for her: get too close to him, and risk turning off voters who find him unpalatable; denounce him, and alienate his supporters.
Maintaining this middle ground could be Ayotte’s best move.
“It’s hard to imagine there are a lot of Trump-Hassan voters out there,” University of New Hampshire political scientist Dante Scala says. “I would think that unless friction developed between the two camps and Trump signaled to his supporters up here that Ayotte’s not on the team, I would think she’d be all right. Ayotte does well with high-school-educated voters. There’s definitely overlap between their two bases.”
State representative Steve Stepanek, co-chairman of Trump’s New Hampshire campaign, says Trump voters are open to backing Ayotte as long as she indicates she is behind their man, and he believes they could be a big help to her in the fall.
“If you are associated with Donald Trump, these people will go down ballot and vote for you. These people are looking for someone who is going to help Donald Trump make America great again. If they hear someone say, ‘I’m going to help Donald Trump make America great again,’ they’re going to remember that when they go into the polling place to vote.”
Scala notes that Ayotte has good reason not to alienate Trump voters.
“Trump’s support was pretty much across the board, across all ideological categories. That’s a lot of voters to make upset” by denouncing him, Scala says. “I think one way or the other the Democrats are going to connect you to the standard-bearer of the party.”
For Ayotte, the challenge may not be in winning over Trump supporters, but outperforming Trump if he turns off more people than he brings to the polls.
“It seems an awful lot to ask of a first-term senator that you’re going to outdistance the top of the ticket by a significant amount, especially since you’re running against a plausible contender who has been on the statewide ballot once more than Ayotte has,” Scala says.
According to a University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll in April, Hillary Clinton’s dismal statewide favorability rating of 38 percent was 17 points higher than Trump’s.
“She can’t embrace him and get re-elected,” former state GOP chairman Fergus Cullen says. “I figure that Hillary carries New Hampshire by at least ten points, and that means Kelly has to run at least five points above the top of the ticket.”
Trump’s supporters insist he will bring a wave of new voters to the polls in November, similar to the way President Obama increased turnout among black and Hispanic voters. But a Politico Magazine analysis of Republican primary voters in some key early states suggested that rather than creating first-time voters, as Obama did, Trump brought Republican general-election voters into the primary this year.
Even if Trump does turn out new general-election voters for the GOP, the question for Ayotte is whether they will outnumber those who show up at the polls to vote against him.
“I will concede that those voters do exist, but I think they are outnumbered by moderate suburban women voters who want nothing to do with Trump,” Cullen says. “And those are the people Kelly needs to win.”
At the end of two Obama terms, New Hampshire Republicans had expected Ayotte to be well positioned in a state that dislikes the president and tends to prefer independent-minded, moderate candidates. Instead, she officially enters the race with both the national and state Republican parties divided and her own message overshadowed by the presence of Trump at the top of the ticket.
— Andrew Cline is an independent writer and communications consultant in New Hampshire.