Sen. Kelly Ayotte: Third Amigo

Why the New Hampshire Senator is making friends with John McCain and Lindsey Graham

Image Credit: Marc Nozell via Flickr

As Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham continue to oppose the potential nomination of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to secretary of state, they’re down an amigo but up an amiga. Their sometimes-collaborator Sen. Joe Lieberman said earlier this month he must “respectfully separate from my two amigos on this one.” Luckily, there’s New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, ready and willing to join them in their ire.

Ayotte, McCain, and Graham met with Rice privately Tuesday, then promptly held a press conference to say they remain opposed to Rice’s nomination because of her initial response to the attack on an American mission in Benghazi. Conventional wisdom among those who don’t share the senators’ concerns (or at least don’t think those concerns should decide Rice’s career) casts it as immediately obvious what McCain and Graham are up to. Graham must answer to his conservative base in South Carolina, among whom a game of “Stop Obama from getting what he wants” is always appreciated. And McCain has been decidedly cranky since losing the 2008 election.

But what to think about Ayotte’s prominent place in the trio? There’s reason to be confused. She’s from a state that just voted for Obama yet again and elected a Democratic governor to boot. So what’s she doing taking on a pet issue of the right that even Lieberman wants no part of? For a taste of how New Hampshire Democrats might spin it, see this letter to the editor in the Concord Monitor from a New Hampshire Democratic National committeeman:

Does Ayotte think New Hampshire just voted for more bullying attacks on decent, capable people like Rice? That wasn’t the message I heard on Nov. 6. Maybe she could disassociate herself from this kind of wretched hatchet work, and spend more time trying to fix the problems that actually confront us

What’s more, she’s only a few years into her first term, so when she says she’ll put a hold on Rice’s nomination if she must, she risks overplaying her hand for the sake of an issue that doesn’t seem to be animating a majority of the American electorate. (Only 40 percent of respondents to a CNN poll think the administration intentionally covered up what they knew of an attack.) As Slate’s Dave Weigel says, quite sarcastically, “Americans spoke with one voice in Nov. 6: They want Kelly Ayotte to choose the next Secretary of State.” Esquire‘s Charles P. Pierce, too, seems unsure just what it is she thinks she’s doing, writing, “John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and the inexplicable Kelly Ayotte, who has decided that the foreign-policy credentials she burnished keeping New Hampshire safe from General Burgoyne have made her a serious player…”

Inexplicable as she might seem, there are some reasons why Ayotte’s game makes sense. Foremost among them: she’s playing for a national audience, not her New Hampshire electorate. Even before she took center stage on this issue, Ayotte was basking in the glow of some moderately broader name recognition. The Nashua Telegraph‘s Jake Berry explains:

Two years ago, the Nashua native had never held elected office. She served five years as New Hampshire’s attorney general, appointed by both Republican and Democratic governors.

The 2012 election, during which she campaigned hard for Mitt Romney, changed all that.

Throughout the last year, New Hampshire’s junior senator was mentioned as a possible running mate for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, and more recently as a possible attorney general candidate.

Unscathed by her repeated criticism of President Barack Obama on the campaign trail, Ayotte has returned to her seat in the Senate with her national profile higher than ever.

Just last week, Politico, a national political publication, listed her among the possible 2016 Republican presidential challengers.

If you can believe it, the 2016 race might go a long way toward explaining Ayotte’s behavior. Rice is seen as fair game on the right, and efforts to make hay out of the Libya affair are met with approval from the national conservative media. Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, for instance, has already written in favor of Ayotte’s actions. You could cast this as an opportunity for Ayotte to get in with the base of her party nationally at a time when she doesn’t really have to answer for it to New Hampshire voters and on an issue that’s just not going to matter that much to most people in four years.

Esquire‘s Pierce, who wondered what she was doing there in the first place, offers 2016 as a possible answer to his own question, referring to the Senator as “the hapless Ayotte, who is clearly, and pathetically, looking past Rice all the way to the 2016 Iowa caucuses.”

If that’s truly what she’s thinking, it seems like a risky gamble. Bigger names than Ayotte have been burned by appealing to a national Republican party at the expense of their more moderate home state. (See: Non-President Mitt Romney.) Congressmen and pundits have accused Graham and McCain of coded racism and sexism in their attacks on Rice. It is useful for the two white dudes to have Ayotte there to reject those charges (and she has rejected them) but is it useful for that woman, looking to the Republican party’s future, to be mentioned in the same breath as “coded racism?”

For now it appears that Ayotte is focusing less on reelection in New Hampshire and more on getting America to pronounce her name correctly. (It’s “a” like letter “a” and “yacht” like the boat, for the record.) Ayotte doesn’t face reelection to the Senate until 2016. And if she’s a presidential or vice presidential nominee, she won’t face reelection in New Hampshire at all.