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.

Looking back, Ayotte’s close advisers saw something special about her the night of that nail-biter primary election. As others in the campaign fretted, Merrill recalls, “she was the cool one.”

“She has got ice water in her veins,” says Duprey, who found evidence in Ayotte’s election-night calm that being a senator, and political success in general, does not define her. And that, say her supporters, is the key to understanding Ayotte, and her appeal to New Hampshire voters. Unlike so many of her colleagues, says Joel Maiola, Judd Gregg’s former chief of staff, she doesn’t have a political background.

Raised in Nashua—like Gregg and former Senator Warren Rudman before her—Ayotte attended Pennsylvania State University and the Villanova University School of Law before returning to New Hampshire, where she put in time practicing in both the private and public sectors.

In 2001 she married Joseph Daley—on September 11 of that year, the couple were on their honeymoon. Daley had planned to begin training to become a commercial airline pilot, but after 9/11 that job was eliminated. He then served as a fighter pilot in Iraq, rising to lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard. Today he runs a snow-removal and landscaping business. Ayotte, meanwhile, was chosen in 2003, at age 34, to be counsel to the state’s new conservative governor, Craig Benson. Benson soon appointed her to a deputy position under the state Attorney General Peter Heed—just before Heed was forced to resign over allegations that he inappropriately touched a woman on the dance floor at a state-sponsored conference on sexual violence. (He was later cleared of wrongdoing and returned to elected office.) Ayotte was not the next in command, but she was the governor’s favorite. In June 2004, she was named AG.

The next year, when voters ended Benson’s brief gubernatorial career, his successor, John Lynch, chose to reappoint Ayotte. It was a politically astute move by Lynch, a moderate Democrat determined to show independent voters he would govern from the center. It was also a huge political gift to Ayotte, who could boast from then on of having been appointed by governors from both parties. She and her supporters have wielded that bipartisanship as a shield in defense of accusations of extremism ever since.

The attorney general in New Hampshire is an appointed, nonpartisan official who acts independently, but Ayotte was quick to demonstrate a conservative streak. Politically, her choices helped lay the groundwork for her right-wing appeal—but they also threatened to alienate moderates. Ayotte quickly staked out a position to the right of Governor Lynch, vigorously defending a state law requiring parental notification for minors seeking an abortion. She personally argued the case before the United States Supreme Court; Lynch, on the other hand, submitted a brief in favor of Planned Parenthood. When Manchester police officer Michael Briggs was murdered in 2006, Ayotte sought the death penalty—a rarity in New Hampshire—then stepped in to prosecute the case herself.

When Ayotte ran for the Senate, though, she downplayed social issues and instead focused on the struggling economy, the rising national debt, and her opposition to the new Affordable Care Act. It was an astute choice, showing her ability to thread the needle and appeal to both hardliners and moderates. That strategy had a strong precedent, harking back to the way former New Hampshire Senator John Sununu bridged the GOP divide, says James Burnett, a longtime top staffer for both Sununu and Gregg. “It’s what issues they personally champion,” Burnett says. “Sununu was pro-life down the line, but the things he took the lead on were fiscal or national security—not the kind of divisive issues that we tend to think of as defining conservative and liberal.”

Of course, Sununu lasted just one term, losing in 2008—and some Democrats believe Ayotte will be like Sununu in this way, as well. They insist she’s far more conservative than her public branding suggests, and that this partisanship will hurt her in 2016, when she won’t have the same level of anti-Obama sentiment at her back as she did in 2010. In this line of thinking, her pro-gun vote, which is wildly unpopular even in her Live Free or Die state, is just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to being solidly pro-life, she is also firmly against same-sex marriage. She supported the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allowing unlimited outside campaign spending. She has spoken in favor of Arizona’s infamous “papers please” immigration-control law.

Perhaps most surprising has been Ayotte’s emergence as one of the country’s leading foreign-policy hawks—a position driven in large part, according to those who know her, by her husband’s experience in Iraq. She wants to keep Guantanamo Bay open, and supported U.S. military action in Syria. During her Senate campaign, she opposed Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court, citing Kagan’s “past actions” concerning military recruiters on the Harvard Law School campus. “Kagan’s thinking falls well outside the mainstream,” Ayotte’s statement at the time proclaimed, “and I do not believe she will adhere to the Constitution’s provision to ‘provide for the common defense.’” This fall, Ayotte was reportedly holding up an Air Force secretary nomination over concerns that the administration is planning to cut the A-10 attack-jet fleet. And she has criticized Obama for not doing enough against the Iranian regime.

It remains to be seen whether her repeated calls for military action are in tune these days with war-weary New Hampshire voters.


David S. Bernstein
David S. Bernstein David S. Bernstein, Contributing Editor, Boston Magazine