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.
When you’re in the fight of your political life, it’s one thing to learn that the threat to your job is coming from the opposing party, or maybe from some outside agitator like Sarah Palin. But as Kelly Ayotte—the Republican junior U.S. senator from New Hampshire—was finding out, it’s something else entirely when the threat comes from one of your colleagues. It was early October, just a couple of days after the ambitious Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Tea Party conservatives in the House of Representatives had led the country into a government shutdown—part of a disastrous plan to get the Affordable Care Act repealed. Already the polling was clear: The public hated the shutdown and placed most of the blame on Republicans, including supposed moderates like Ayotte, who had voted with Cruz five times in the week leading up to the fiscal fiasco. Facing a rising backlash among irate voters, Ayotte changed her mind, reversed course, and sided against Cruz on a crucial procedural vote. The public didn’t seem to care that she’d broken ranks—but many of Ayotte’s fellow Republicans sure did. And they were going to punish her for her lack of fealty.
Those Republicans wouldn’t be the first to underestimate Kelly Ayotte.
Her punishment arrived swiftly: A conservative political action committee included Ayotte’s name in a press release denouncing the GOP’s allegedly pro-Obamacare senators, with her name printed in scarlet. And that’s when the normally even-keeled first-term senator—generally a cautious public speaker with a courtroom manner—blew a gasket at a private luncheon in the Capitol building. Enraged at the impossible position the Tea Party hardliners had put her in, Ayotte let loose on Cruz, according to an account that appeared in the next day’s New York Times. Waving a copy of the Senate Conservatives Fund press release, she demanded that Cruz denounce the PAC’s efforts to discredit her—and that he explain the end game for the government shutdown he had just led his party into. An end game, that is, that didn’t end with Republicans like her getting run out of office.
Ayotte—who declined to be interviewed for this article, yet agreed to be photographed for it—doesn’t seem like someone you’d want yelling at you. She is tall—taller, in heels, than Cruz—and far less concerned with prettiness than the pearl-necklace-and-loud-brooch women or the tailored-suit-and-cuff-links men of the Senate. She typically dresses in dark skirt suits on the hill and pantsuits back home in New Hampshire. She parts her straight brown hair just on the left and lets both sides flop down onto her shoulders. She wears little makeup, and her only pieces of jewelry are her wedding and engagement rings, a thin dangling necklace usually tucked behind her blouse, and what appears to be a rotation of three or so sets of tasteful earrings. More to the point, the no-nonsense former prosecutor has also personally remonstrated with a killer she wanted sent to death row, and with Supreme Court justices she hoped to persuade to adopt her thinking on abortion.
So there she was standing up to the GOP’s playground bully. It could have been her political funeral. But instead, when she railed, other Republican senators, previously acquiescent toward Cruz—as Ayotte had been up to this point—took the cue from the young, small-state upstart. “It just started a lynch mob,” one senator told the Times.
It’s the kind of scene that illustrates why many Republicans believe that Ayotte might be the new hope of their party. At age 45, in the third year of her first term in elected office, Ayotte has soared from obscurity to political stardom. Pushing back at Cruz only helped to raise her standing in the party. She appears constantly on national talk shows, and is on everyone’s list of potential 2016 vice presidential candidates. It’s not a big surprise that members of her party want her out front as much as possible, despite her subpar skills as a public speaker—a criticism even her most ardent supporters concede. Her voice cracks at times, and goes flat at others. Her speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention was poorly reviewed. That’s far less important, for the GOP, than having someone other than middle-aged white men represent the party. They need smart, reasonable-sounding women like Ayotte to help them counter a paternalistic image that has them getting clobbered among female voters lately.
And yet the scene also highlighted just how difficult a position Ayotte is in. Cruz, after all, didn’t back down after her tirade. And the threat articulated in that attack-by-press-release she was waving was not idle. The Senate Conservatives Fund, founded by former Senator Jim DeMint, has plenty of money and has already endorsed 2014 primary challengers to three incumbent Republican senators whom the organization has deemed to be insufficiently pure on Tea Party issues. It’s probably only a matter of time until Ayotte, who is up for reelection in 2016, attracts a challenger of her own. Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and Howie Carr have all called for someone to take her on from the right.
But as serious as her problems are with conservatives, Ayotte is just as threatened from the center left. Middle-of-the-road independent and moderate voters in her state may lump her together with national Republicans, who continue to set new records for party unpopularity.
Welcome to the unforgiving world of the GOP’s most interesting rising star since—well, since Scott Brown. If she plays her cards right, could she be our next vice president? The only question more intriguing than that one is whether she can hang on to the job she has now.
You can think of Kelly Ayotte as a kind of mutant political science experiment—a living test of whether the species Republicanus senatorialis can exist outside the confines of its natural habitats, namely the hard-core conservative states in the South and Midwest. Caught between New Hampshire’s craggy independents and its insurgent conservatives, Ayotte has spent the past year swerving between positions that curry the favor of left and right. She joined hard-right conservatives by opposing a popular gun control measure. She split with them by supporting immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship. In November she voted in favor of gay-rights legislation—the Employment Non-Discrimination Act—while at the same time helping to block highly qualified judicial appointments because of the nominees’ alleged pro-choice stance on abortion.
Most Senate newcomers, including Cruz on the right and Elizabeth Warren on the left, don’t have to play this type of political hopscotch: They have carved out straightforwardly partisan paths to power that, while fascinating to watch, are as predictable as the sunrise. Their home states love them for it. For a variety of reasons, so-called red-state Democrats survive in decent numbers by plowing a moderate path. But a Northeast Republican? Endangered species. If a choice specimen like Scott Brown couldn’t pull it off, why does Ayotte think she can?
In part, she thinks so because she’s a fighter. Survival of the fittest.