Kelly Ayotte: The Elephant Woman

Can New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte save the national Republican party? Maybe, but first she’ll have to get reelected in her own state.

The confrontation with Cruz, on October 2, was just an opening round. Facing a severe public backlash on the shutdown, Ayotte took matters into her own hands and launched a sustained media blitz the very next day, casting herself as a voice of reason between two petulant sides of broken government. Taking the Senate floor on October 4, she was animated and ad-libbing, and when she denounced her fellow Republicans, it sounded like it was coming from the heart. “It’s time for a reality check,” she declared. “Defunding Obamacare did not work as a strategy.” Trying to shut down the government over the Affordable Care Act, she complained, was an “ill-conceived strategy by some members of my own party.”

Sure, the lady was protesting too much—after all, she had voted with Cruz five different times in the previous week to implement the very strategy she was now standing on the floor of the Senate to repudiate. In fact, America was seeing an entirely new Ayotte from the one her Senate colleagues had witnessed even the morning of the contentious lunch, when she had given a typically halting and stiff floor speech denouncing Obama and Obamacare, reading from a prepared text. But now, as she raked her obstructionist colleagues over the coals, she seemed to have found her métier—her message was pitch-perfect.

Two weeks later, Ayotte appeared on the Today show, alongside fellow Republicans Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, to discuss the importance of women in ending the shutdown madness. The performance earned Ayotte glowing national press. Locally, she received a rare “Double Up” arrow in the astute New Hampshire political reporter James Pindell’s weekly column. “Ayotte,” Pindell wrote, “came into her own during the shutdown by leading from her gut, building coalitions, reflecting the anger of her constituents, and remaining true to her conservative credentials while distancing herself from the extremes of her party by going off about the tactics.” Or, as the political analyst Jennifer Duffy put it, “she was willing to walk up to a line, but she wasn’t willing to cross it.” Duffy, who is senior editor of the Cook Political Report, which tracks races all over the country, says Ayotte’s voting record “could easily be portrayed as pandering, but it’s also the reality of the state she represents.”

For all the love from pundits, though, polling so far suggests that Ayotte has taken a hit back home, along with the rest of her party—and not just from those opposed to the shutdown. Ayotte was booed in absentia at an October 12 “Strong NH Conference” event by conservative New Hampshirites upset by her anti-shutdown rhetoric.

“The good news is, people don’t hate her,” says Tom Jensen, director of the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling, in Raleigh, North Carolina. The bad news for her, Jensen says, is that her political fortunes may be beyond her control. Her fate might be determined by those rabid Strong NH attendees—who will help pick the presidential nominee at the top of the ticket she’ll be running on in 2016. “If a Ted Cruz or Rand Paul is the Republican nominee in 2016, Democrats will probably win New Hampshire,” Jensen says, taking Ayotte’s seat in the Senate along the way. Asked to predict Ayotte’s reelection chances, Duffy says, “you might as well blindfold me and ask me to throw darts.”

 

While the Granite State continues to shift toward the Democratic Party—it has chosen the Democrat in the past three presidential elections—New Hampshire retains a great deal of conservatism. That dichotomy, and the difference in voter turnout from one election to the next, has helped create some of the wildest party-shifting swings anywhere in the country. In 2006, anger with President George W. Bush and the Iraq War led to Democrats ousting both of the state’s incumbent Republican congressmen, and taking over the State House for the first time since 1922 and the Senate for the second time since 1911. Four years later, in a Tea Party–fueled 2010 election, Republicans took all of that back in a stunningly lopsided election—gaining 124 seats in the 400-member house, and taking a 19–5 edge in the Senate. And then in the 2012 presidential election, Democrats reversed almost all of it yet again, failing only to win back their majority in the state Senate. Given these wild fluctuations, and the fact that Ayotte’s victory as part of the 2010 Republican wave was the first time her name had appeared on a ballot, observers still wonder whether her election was a fluke.

It’s fair to say the seat Ayotte now occupies opened up in a somewhat fluky way. At the start of 2009, Judd Gregg, who’d been a senator since 1993, agreed to become commerce secretary for the newly elected President Obama. Days later, citing policy disagreements, he withdrew his name. His awkward ambivalence damaged him politically, and in February 2009 he announced he would not run for reelection.

Former New Hampshire Governor Steve Merrill helped talk Ayotte into running for Gregg’s seat, and even chaired her campaign. At the time, Ayotte was the state’s attorney general, a position to which she’d been appointed by former Governor Craig Benson. With Gregg backing Ayotte as his successor, Ayotte’s main challenge in the primary was expected to come from businessman Bill Binnie, who spent more than $5 million of his own money on his campaign—a fortune in New Hampshire. But Binnie faded, and Tea Party enthusiasm coalesced around a long-shot candidate named Ovide Lamontagne. And on election day, it looked like Lamontagne might win: Early returns showed him in the lead, and members of his campaign were privately telling Steve Duprey, Ayotte’s 2010 finance chair and the former chairman of the state’s Republican Party, that they expected a Lamontagne victory. The Ayotte camp, Duprey says, was even “talking about working out the timing” of a potential concession speech. But in the end, Ayotte eked out a primary victory in an election so close that the winner wasn’t announced until the next day. Those in and around her campaign credit Ayotte’s dogged, indefatigable work ethic for the win.

The general election, in which Ayotte faced Democratic Congressman Paul Hodes, was expected to be one of the country’s most competitive races. But again, the 2010 mood changed all that; Ayotte won by 23 points.


David S. Bernstein
David S. Bernstein David S. Bernstein, Contributing Editor, Boston Magazine david@davidsbernstein.com