Ayotte Balances Demands From Right and Center

Ayotte Balances Demands From Right and Center

By Caitlin Huey-Burns and Scott Conroy - October 9, 2013

Kelly Ayotte is no stranger to the difficult balancing act of politics.

In the 2010 New Hampshire Senate primary, the Republican state attorney general trumpeted an endorsement from Sarah Palin to help her fend off a tough GOP challenger, who had attempted to outflank her on the right.

Then Ayotte tracked closely enough to the center to blow out her Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Paul Hodes, by 23 percentage points in the general election. (In the process, she won all 10 of the state’s counties.)

Once she arrived in Washington, it wasn’t long before Ayotte began being mentioned as a potential candidate for higher office.

Never mind that her 2010 win was the first political campaign of her life. The former prosecutor was tough, smart, and struck an appealing image as a mother of two in her early 40s.

For a Republican Party always on the lookout for fresh-faced up-and-comers, Ayotte appeared to be a superstar in the making. And the Tea Party loved her as much as the GOP establishment did.

Last year, however, Ayotte was briefly a considered a possible running mate for Mitt Romney -- whose conservative bona fides were questioned by the right wing of the GOP -- and more recently has aligned herself with the John McCain/Lindsey Graham faction of the party’s Senate caucus on foreign policy, triggering some blowback from the right.

Though she campaigned against the Affordable Care Act in 2010, she was frank in her objections to what many of her colleagues also saw (but expressed privately) as the quixotic attempt by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to defund it last month through the continuing resolution.

During the GOP’s weekly Senate policy luncheons, she stood up and criticized Cruz’s tactics to his face, aides confirmed, and she was prepared to suffer the consequences.

“I think there are many of my colleagues who felt the same way -- that they didn’t think the defunding strategy was a successful strategy,” Ayotte told RealClearPolitics during an interview in the Russell Senate Office Building. “I don’t feel that I’m in any way a lone Republican on this, but I felt a duty to speak up on it because this is too important for what is at stake for the American people right now.”

Rather than being chastised, Ayotte appeared to inspire others in the room, at least one of whom used unvarnished language to characterize the resulting outcry against Cruz:

“It just started a lynch mob,” one GOP senator who was present told the New York Times.

Two days later, Ayotte went public with her grievances -- taking to the Senate floor to declare in unusually stark language that the party’s negotiating tactics were failing.

“I would say to my Republican colleagues in the House and to some in this chamber, it’s time for a reality check,” Ayotte said, pointing her finger for emphasis. “Defunding Obamacare did not work as a strategy.”

None of this is to say that the Granite State lawmaker has abandoned her conservative principles and isn’t mindful of the stances that got her elected in the first place.

“There was a lot of energy in 2010, and a lot of that energy was around two issues: the fiscal state of the country -- the debt -- and the health care law,” she told RCP. “I was elected at a time where these were the two primary issues, [which] we find ourselves talking about today.”

She has voted multiple times to curb or repeal Obamacare and has suggested that the GOP might get concessions from Democrats on the repeal of the medical device tax, which is intended to raise $30 billion for the ACA.

Last spring, she voted against a bipartisan measure to expand background checks for gun buyers, embracing criticism and commendations alike when she returned home for several emotionally charged town-hall meetings on the subject. She took a hit in public polling, and gun-control groups headed by Michael Bloomberg and Gabby Giffords ran ads against her in the state. (Though Florida Sen. Marco  Rubio came to her aid, airing supportive ads in New Hampshire through his political action committee.)

Just as she was winning plaudits on the right for her hard line on that issue, Ayotte’s “yes” vote on the immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in June drew another wave of backlash from conservatives.

But Ayotte remains forthright in espousing her view of what GOP senators can realistically offer the voters who sent them to Washington.

“Where we are right now, they understand we’ve had an intervening election in 2012 where one of the issues in the presidential election was the health care law,” she explained. “Many of my constituents remain very concerned about the health care law … but what I’m hearing from my constituents is don’t shut down the government.”

Ayotte’s affiliation with McCain and Graham -- particularly in advocating for a more interventionist foreign policy -- has grown in recent months.

And her friends in the upper chamber are eager to defend her.

“I think she understands New Hampshire, representing New Hampshire and that part of the party that’s more traditional conservative, Ronald Reagan-type, peace through strength,” Graham said of Ayotte, upon whom he bestowed the title of Sunday show circuit “third amigo” (joining himself and McCain and replacing former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman). “She’s not a libertarian. She’s a traditional conservative. And I think she believes bipartisanship, in her world, is not a bad thing.”

McCain, who campaigned for Ayotte in New Hampshire in 2010, agreed that her political profile is in part a reflection of her home state’s constituents.

“Obviously in New Hampshire, there’s not that kind of dynamism that there is in the Southern or Southwestern states,” the Arizona senator told RCP. “The thing people in New Hampshire like about her is she’s got an independent streak. That’s Warren Rudman’s legacy and others. And I think she is staying in that lane. And she’s reflecting what I know about New Hampshire, which is quite a bit: ‘Live Free or Die.’ Independence.”

The political peril for Ayotte is that not all rank-and-file conservatives in the state see it that way.

There are already whispers about a potential primary challenge to her in 2016 -- a nascent effort that was endorsed by none other than Palin, her onetime booster.

“I can tell you she is in deep trouble with her ‘base,’” said one Tea Party-aligned operative in the state, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “She has become a McCain cling-on, and that is not working here. The Washington Post may like her, but the grassroots are over her in a big way. She is betting no one primaries her. I wouldn't make that same bet.”

Despite such murmurs, Ayotte’s record as a staunch conservative on fiscal issues and her willingness at times to take politically challenging positions have won the 45-year-old senator the praise of influential factions back home.

Drew Cline, the editorial page editor of the conservative New Hampshire Union Leader applauded her for not confining herself to any sweet spot on the ideological spectrum in hopes of receiving the highest political dividends.

“I think she might actually be taking firm positions based on conviction. She's certainly taking real risks, both in her votes and back at home,” Cline said, noting that it “took guts” for Ayotte to cast controversial votes and stand up to Cruz. “My impression is that she is not content to follow, and too restless to wait years to move up the seniority ladder, so she's doing what she can to lead in a way that suits her analytical, pragmatic temperament.”

Like Rubio -- her higher profile freshman colleague -- Ayotte is navigating the difficult terrain that comes with being a pragmatic lawmaker who also rode the Tea Party wave to victory.

With increasing regularity, Ayotte appears unafraid to ruffle feathers among some of the loudest voices on the right, who were once among her biggest backers.

Time will tell whether the benefits of coming across as an earnest legislator outweigh the brewing backlash among those same conservatives in 2016. 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP. Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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Caitlin Huey-Burns and Scott Conroy

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