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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Nashua’s Ayotte raised profile during presidential campaign

By now, many of U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s supporters were hoping she’d be preparing her new office on Capitol Hill.

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. ...

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By now, many of U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s supporters were hoping she’d be preparing her new office on Capitol Hill.

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.

Ayotte, though, doesn’t want to dwell on what could have been or where her political stardom may take her.

“Obviously, it’s humbling to be mentioned” for those positions, Ayotte said, “but my job is to represent the people of New Hampshire in the Senate. That’s the job that I ran for. That’s the job that I wanted.”

The Nashua native’s reluctance hasn’t stopped other lawmakers and analysts from weighing in on her future as her star continues to rise in the Republican Party.

“There are few U.S. Senators that can say … in their first term that they have made as much of an impact on the national party politics as Kelly Ayotte,” outgoing said U.S. Rep. Charles Bass, R-N.H.

Ayotte campaigned vigorously for Romney, appeared on national news programs and earned a prime-time slot at the Republican National Convention.

And earlier this month, Ayotte stood next to veteran Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham as the three targeted President Obama and the administration in a much publicized press conference regarding the embassy attack in Benghazi, Libya.

New Hampshire Democratic leaders argue Ayotte’s allegiance to outdated Republican values have put her in line with the Republican party’s old guard, leaving her out of touch with voters.

“She really has placed herself in the right wing of the Republican Party,” said Kathy Sullivan, one of the state’s representatives to the Democratic National Committee. “That’s totally out of step with where New Hampshire voters are today.”

But supporters contend that Ayotte’s youth, gender and emerging reputation in and out of the Senate will make her a factor on the national stage for years.

“She really is a rising star in the Republican Party,” said McCain, the former presidential nominee who serves with Ayotte on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I can see her being very seriously considered for both vice president, and certainly over time, for the presidential nomination. … Her rise in the Senate is probably the most impressive I’ve seen.”

On the map

From Concord to Washington, Ayotte’s star has risen fast and bright.

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. And over her tenure, she developed a reputation as an aggressive and hardworking prosecutor.

So, when former U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg announced his intention to retire from Washington in 2010, Republican leaders quickly approached her about the position.

“Kelly Ayotte is tireless. She’s relentless,” said former New Hampshire Gov. Steve Merrill, who chaired Ayotte’s campaign for Senate. “When she tried cases personally as attorney general, I thought she was exhibiting the kind of leadership that would put New Hampshire on the map.”

And voters agreed.

In the Republican primary, Ayotte emerged from a crowded field, defeating businessman Bill Binnie and future gubernatorial challenger Ovide Lamontagne, among others, to earn the party nomination.

Her campaign drew attention from across the country, enlisting support from Republican leaders such as Romney, Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who labeled Ayotte one of her famed “Momma Grizzlies.”

And in the general election, she defeated Democratic nominee Paul Hodes, a sitting U.S. representative, by 23 percentage points.

“She had pretty broad appeal,” said Andrew Smith, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. “She was able to do what a lot of the Democratic women were able to do and pull votes from across party lines.”

Despite the win, the election cost Ayotte some ground, according to some Democratic critics. During the election, Ayotte positioned herself far to the right on key social issues, including abortion, that could haunt her in future elections, opponents argued.

“That was a very different climate than we have now. People are looking for moderation in their elected officials,” said Hodes, citing the Nov. 6 election.

“Whether through her own efforts or the efforts of the Republican Party, Kelly Ayotte has adopted a particularly strident tone on a number of issues,” he said, referring to her stance on abortion, women’s access to contraception and equal pay, among others. “That may prove to be problematic for her when she comes up for re-election.”

Gender role

Once she arrived in Washington, Ayotte found herself riding the fast track.

She was quickly named to the high-profile Armed Services and Budget committees, among others. And within months, she began to take a lead role on both boards.

In addition to campaigning for Romney, Ayotte joined McCain and Graham, her two colleagues on the Armed Services Committee, earlier this year on a tour through New Hampshire, Florida and other states to address the $500 billion in sequestration cuts threatening the military. And she joined the two Senators once again last week, demanding further investigation into the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi.

“Really, what drew me to that is my background as a prosecutor,” she said. “I really want to get to the bottom of what happened. There is a whole list of questions I believe have to be answered.”

Ayotte’s experience and
drive will continue to make her a force in the Senate through the rest of her term, Republican colleagues and friends said.

But as she continues to raise her profile, other distinctions will contribute to her rise in the Republican Party, colleagues and friends said.

At 44, Ayotte remains one of the youngest members of the Senate, and as a woman, she represents a move away from the old white male demographics that contributed to Romney’s defeat, along with the subsequent Republican losses down the ticket, according to some party leaders.

“We all know that we lost the votes of women,”
McCain said. “Certainly, she comes to the discussion with a little more credibility than old geezers like me.”

But Ayotte’s gender alone won’t be enough to distract women from her extreme views on women’s health and other issues, said Sullivan, former chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party.

Among other controversial votes, Ayotte supported a measure to allow employers to decline to insure birth control under their coverage plans, Sullivan noted.

“You can’t hide the policies of a party or the parties of a candidate by saying you’re a female,” she said. “People hear what you have to say.”

But of all the debate surrounding Ayotte now, the freshman senator’s future has yet to be written.

With heated debate looming on taxes, the federal debt and other issues, the positions Ayotte takes in the coming months will go further in determining her political future, according to political leaders on both sides.

“I think the critical issue looking forward is, will Kelly be allowed to be seen as moving to the center, compromising and voting for progress?” said Peter Burling, a former state senator and a delegate to the Democratic National Committee. “If she’s seen as a leader in that role, that’s one thing. But if she’s seen as a hard-liner, she’s toast.”

“It’s really going to be up to her how far she wants to go,” said Gregg, who preceded Ayotte in the Senate. “The party needs people like her who are talented, smart, fiscally conservative, who can appeal to a broader base. … She has a very bright horizon.”

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or jberry@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Berry on Twitter (Telegraph_JakeB).