Portsmouth, N.H. — Four miles away from the Toyota dealership where Donald Trump had, half an hour earlier, suggested Hillary Clinton might have been on drugs during last Sunday’s debate, New Hampshire senator Kelly Ayotte was having a beer at the New Hampshire Brewfest. It was one week to the day since she’d declared she would not be voting for Trump, her party’s presidential nominee, and that decision’s effect on her reelection remained unclear. A drink seemed only appropriate.
Trump has caused political trouble for down-ballot Republicans across the country this election cycle, but Ayotte may be the hardest hit of them all. Members of both parties are still waiting to see just how bad the fallout from Trump’s ongoing sexual harassment scandal will get. But whether or not Ayotte ultimately bests Governor Maggie Hassan in one of 2016’s most competitive Senate races, she has been tripped up by Trump since the very beginning.
Ayotte spent much of the cycle in the uncomfortable position of officially supporting Trump without endorsing him. She kept her distance from his campaign — she never stumped for him or appeared with him at a rally — and made headlines attacking him for his remarks about women, Muslims, and war heroes. But at no point did she suggest she might not vote for him. Two weeks ago at a debate, she stepped in it, declaring that Trump was “absolutely” a role model. She quickly walked back the comment, and later released an ad deeming both Clinton and Trump imperfect in an attempt to move on from the ensuing controversy. Then, after the release of the now-infamous video in which Trump bragged explicitly about his predatory behavior toward women, she cut ties, declaring that on November 8 she would write in vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence.
“I had renounced things he had said, but that tape was fundamentally different for me because of the discussion of assault in it, having been a prosecutor,” Ayotte tells National Review in an interview outside the New Hampshire Brewfest. “And also I’m the mother of a twelve-year-old girl, and I know one day she’s going to figure out, you know, about what’s in there, and I want her to know where her mother stood. That’s actually more important to me than winning an election.”
The question now is whether that’s an either/or proposition. One poll conducted entirely after the tape’s release found Ayotte tied with Hassan and another had her one point ahead of the governor, suggesting that the dynamics of the race have not functionally changed. But while many New Hampshire Republicans profess themselves optimistic, others are not certain whether the relative respite will last. Backing away from Trump leaves Ayotte open to attacks on both sides: Some Trump supporters have said they will not back her, while Democrats have dubbed her “Craven Kelly,” painting the move as an entirely political one.
On the other hand, breaking ranks with Trump could help her among voters in the middle. As of August, more than a third of New Hampshire voters were “undeclared” in their party registration, according to data from the New Hampshire secretary of state — more than were registered as members of either major party. Independent voters play an outsize role in New Hampshire elections, and some Republicans believe Ayotte’s decision will help keep them in the fold.
Ayotte has long banked on outrunning the Republican presidential nominee — essential regardless of the nominee in a state where Democrats have won five of the last six presidential elections. But securing those split-ticket voters just became all the more important, since some Trump diehards will back away from her in the face of her defection. For now, New Hampshire Republicans say they only see her losing those base voters at the margins. But polls have Ayotte in a virtual dead heat, so even marginal losses could prove fatal.
“Ayotte did absolutely the right thing, and she really had no choice,” says New Hampshire Republican consultant Tom Rath. “For her to win, and I believe she will, she needs the GOP base, but she also needs the center-independent vote. And this was critical for that sector.”
Polls have Ayotte in a virtual dead heat, so even marginal losses could prove fatal.
But no one is entirely sure. Former New Hampshire GOP chairman Fergus Cullen worries that Trump could still bury Ayotte and every other Republican on the ballot in a political “avalanche.” New Hampshire Republican consultant Patrick Hynes calls the race a toss-up. “For all we know, she may be playing it perfectly,” he says.
The Granite State handed Trump his first primary win by a massive margin, in what may have been the turning point of the campaign for the Republican nomination. But the general election is another matter. Though the polls in New Hampshire have varied widely, Trump has not led a single one all year. In polling of a four-way race with Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, who New Hampshire politicos expect could combine to take 10–15 percent of the vote, Clinton’s lead over the past month has varied between two points and nine points. New Hampshire is 94 percent white, according to 2015 U.S. Census data, but 34 percent of the population has at least an undergraduate degree, making it one of the most educated states in the country. While Trump polls well with whites, education has been one of the major demographic dividers of the cycle: He has the overwhelming support of voters without a college degree; Clinton has the overwhelming backing of the college-educated.
Ayotte portrays her renunciation of the Republican nominee as a mark of independence, a theme that she has repeated in a number of her ads. “If I disagree with someone, I’m going to call them out, even if it’s from my own party,” she says. But in the meantime, she would like to get off the subject. “I think the people of New Hampshire, they want to talk about the Senate race,” she concludes, when asked about Trump. Her events on Friday and Saturday invited little opportunity to talk about other Republicans on the ticket.
When Ayotte arrived Friday morning at American K-9 Country, a doggie daycare that the owner describes as “Disneyland for dogs,” her attempts to introduce herself were rebuffed. All around, dogs and their owners were competing in a sort of amateur dog show meant to test a pup’s obedience, and Ayotte had inadvertently approached a group of people who were mid-competition. The dogs had been tasked with sitting for three minutes while their owners went out of sight, and the time was almost up. Ayotte was there in an official capacity to receive the Legislator of the Year award from the American Kennel Club. “It’s a Best in Show” award, said the AKC’s Sheila Goffe, laughing.
In person, Ayotte is warm, friendly, and quick with a hug for the people who approached her at an early morning 5K run to support the Foley Foundation. On a cold morning, amid a crowd of bleary-eyed people, Ayotte chatted and happily posed for photos with well-wishers. “Good luck!” one man told her before the 5K. “I don’t mean this race — I mean the next race.”
Democrats are taking a different approach. At a Democratic-party dinner in Epping on Friday, the message, as former representative and current candidate Carol Shea Porter put it, was “bottoms up”: Vote for Democrats from the top to the bottom of the ticket. Hassan and gubernatorial candidate Colin Van Ostern have coordinated their color schemes with Clinton’s — driving around the state, it’s hard to say which Democrat each blue campaign sign belongs to. And Hassan, in an event with students at Dartmouth on Saturday, made clear she has no intention of giving Ayotte any separation from her party’s nominee.
Ayotte was “standing right with her party in supporting Donald Trump, even though he was making one sexist comment after the next, one racist comment after the next, making fun of people with disabilities, saying maybe we should destabilize NATO, and more nuclear weapons would be a good thing in our world,” Hassan tells National Review after the Dartmouth event. “Those are all things she stood by because she kept saying she had to stand with her party’s nominee, no matter who it was, no matter what they believed. And then at the eleventh hour, when suddenly it became clear to her that maybe . . . Donald Trump would bother people in both parties, she finally switched.”
Hassan appeared at the event with Representative Annie Kuster, New York senator Kristen Gillibrand, and actor Connie Britton, and it was as much about her as it was about Clinton, whose signs also lined the walls behind them. Ayotte, the governor said, “seemed to be about the only person surprised” by Trump’s comments in the video.
Trump’s unpredictability has Republicans concerned about what might yet happen in the final 22 days before the election. Trump has made clear he has no problem lashing out at Republicans who break with him, attacking Arizona senator John McCain and House speaker Paul Ryan on Twitter, so it is entirely possible that he could do the same to Ayotte. But Ayotte’s name was conspicuously absent from Trump’s remarks Saturday afternoon. And on the lawn in front of the Toyota dealership where Trump rallied here, three giant signs stood lined up: one for the Republican presidential nominee, one for Republican gubernatorial candidate Chris Sununu, one for Ayotte.
As Ayotte left the New Hampshire Brewfest here at Red Hook brewery, a woman stopped her to tell her, “Thank you for dumping Trump.” Ayotte patted the woman on the shoulder and gave thanks in return. But with her reelection hanging in the balance, it’s possible she might never fully be free of the man at the top of her party’s ticket.