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.

What happened to the Northeast Republican? Kelly Ayotte is one of only four Republican senators from the 16 states that fall northeast of Kentucky—down from 14 (including six in New England) at the start of George W. Bush’s presidency in 2000.

They didn’t last, because Washington Republicans pursued conservative policies (trying to privatize Social Security, for example), oversaw the disastrous Iraq War, and finally led the country into near depression. Some prominent Northeast Republicans—including Jim Jeffords, of Vermont; Lincoln Chafee, of Rhode Island; and Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania—simply left the party, while others retired and were replaced by Democrats. Still others were voted out. It has been a thorough purging, one that has also cleared out most of the party’s northeasterners from the U.S. House.

Of those 14 Northeast Republican senators in 2000, only one is still in office: Maine’s Susan Collins. Her three colleagues from the region—Ayotte; Rob Portman, of Ohio; and Pat Toomey, of Pennsylvania—were all swept into office as part of the GOP avalanche election of 2010. Said another way, Collins is the only current Republican senator in the entire Northeast to have won an election in any year other than that one.

The 2010 class of Republican U.S. Senators, who will be up for reelection in 2016, illustrates the party’s stark internal divide—the one that was so clearly illustrated in that private lunch yelling match. Many of them rode into Washington ready for battle: Rand Paul, of Kentucky; Marco Rubio, of Florida; Roy Blunt, of Missouri; Ron Johnson, of Wisconsin; and Mike Lee, of Utah, were in no mood to lie low and quietly earn chits like the freshman senators of yore. For their part, the Northeast Republicans are solidly conservative, but have taken a more conciliatory approach, likely because they realize that there’s a reason they now number just four. Survival of the fittest.

Portman and Toomey, like Ayotte, have toggled between pleasing their conservative base and their moderate electorate, Duffy says. Portman was the first Republican U.S. senator to publicly support same-sex marriage; Toomey—previously the head of the hardline conservative Club for Growth—has tacked to the center since taking office, most notably by introducing a gun-control bill after the Newtown, Connecticut, school shootings.

But as Ayotte has found, being a Northeast Republican these days means a life of constant turmoil. And this year, her ricocheting views have earned her a whiplash of kudos and condemnations.

Ayotte’s supporters say her unpredictable approach to policy is simply a matter of pragmatism and principle. “She did not just come to Washington and lecture people,” says Senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina. “She definitely is a conservative, but also a problem-solver. She’s very clear about wanting to affect the course this country is on.” Graham notes that Ayotte was part of the bipartisan working group trying to negotiate a “grand bargain” on deficit reduction, and was repeatedly invited to budget meetings at the White House. She was also part of a bipartisan group that compromised on a deal earlier in 2013 to move dozens of Obama nominees to confirmation. “If there are any big deals to be done,” Graham says, “on a grand deal on the budget, or any issue you can think of, she’s going to be in the middle of it.”

Pointing out Ayotte’s support for immigration reform, Steve Merrill touts her as a conservative “who is willing to talk to both sides, and work with both sides, but never loses sight of her core values.” Of course, that’s what people said about another Northeast Republican who was elected senator in 2010—a certain handsome pickup driver from Massachusetts—but has already been voted out, despite desperate attempts to appeal to the center. To be sure, New Hampshire is not like solid-blue Massachusetts. That’s why Scott Brown himself has been spending most of his free time up north, toying with the idea of running against Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen in 2014, or even entering the 2016 presidential primary. Brown’s interest in the Granite State is part of a broader battle for the heart of the GOP—one that will play out in New Hampshire just as Ayotte is running for reelection. Chris Christie, another relative moderate eyeing New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary, just happens to have his former staffer, Matt Mower, as the state GOP’s new executive director. But Tea Party favorites Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, among others, have also visited New Hampshire and are beginning to prepare shadow organizations. As Ayotte tries to bridge the gap between moderate and conservative, the presidential candidates will be tugging those sides apart.


Kelly Ayotte is not a natural seeker of the limelight. She returns frequently to New Hampshire, spends as much time as possible with her two young children, runs regularly to clear her head, and lives simply in Washington in a subterranean apartment. Nevertheless, she was once again all over national television in November, chosen by Republicans to criticize Obamacare, and to question the administration’s nuclear-inspection deal with Iran.

Ayotte “is a unique brand,” Maiola says. “She’s not a lunatic like Michele Bachmann. She’s very conservative, but appeals to independents. She broadens the party so much.” And Ayotte has made the most of all the Sunday television appearances, press conferences with McCain and Graham, and the rest of the national attention that her unique brand has afforded her. She has raised her profile and reputation, and convinced her fellow Republican senators of her value. When gun-control advocates pummeled Ayotte with TV ads, her allies in the Senate quietly funded groups that ran counter ads supporting her.

But there is a downside, too: The more Ayotte serves as the face of the national party, the more tied she is to that party in the eyes of New Hampshire voters.

That’s why she had it out with Senator Cruz over the government shutdown—Ayotte knows that, ultimately, it won’t be enough for her to tell voters she’s not like the Tea Party crazies, or to parcel out moderate votes. She—and Northeast Republicans as a whole—are stuck with Cruz and the others. They can only beg those zealots to behave. And hope that they listen.

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