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Editorial: Ayotte’s vote can’t be taken for granted

When Kelly Ayotte first ran for the U.S. Senate in 2010, she seemed like a safer choice for New Hampshire Republicans than her chief primary opponents, the ideological Ovide Lamontagne and the untested Bill Binnie.

But when former Alaska governor Sarah Palin gave Ayotte her “Mama Grizzly” stamp of approval during that 2010 campaign, it no doubt gave some middle-of-the-road voters pause.

When Ayotte came out against even the modest and popular Manchin-Toomey gun control measure in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., school shootings, she was excoriated by New Hampshire residents and out-of-state activists who saw the measure as a bit of common sense in a country gone gun-crazy. And she received significant financial support from conservatives who thought she was right.

But this summer, when Ayotte made public her support for an immigration reform measure pending in Congress, she angered opponents who characterized her as supporting “amnesty” and “stabbing New Hampshire in the back.” And she was cheered by immigration activists who were surprised and heartened by her practical position.

When Ayotte said she wanted to do away with the Affordable Care Act, she seemed to be taking her cue directly from the GOP playbook. But when she made clear that holding the country hostage until Obamacare was crippled was not a winning strategy, she won plaudits from Wall Street, Democrats and mainstream Republicans for being among the few grown-ups in the Capitol who could bring an end to the government shutdown and partisan stalemate. Most provocative: Ayotte’s role in a GOP “lynch mob” against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz for his role in the shutdown mess.

Her position on the shutdown also spawned a “Recall Senator Kelly Ayotte” page on Facebook, in which the senator is shown in a rhinoceros costume – presumably because her opponents consider her a RINO – Republican in name only.

In other words, since she first declared her run for office, Ayotte has been a high-profile player and an unpredictable one.

It may well be too soon to assess whether the senator is a truly independent thinker, a shrewd operator from a purple state, an ambitious politician with her eyes on a prize even greater than a U.S. Senate seat – or perhaps a bit of all three. Whatever the case, her inability to be easily pigeonholed makes her an important vote in the Senate and a player who has gained public attention far beyond her freshman status.

Turn on the Sunday TV talk shows on any given week, and you’re likely to see Ayotte opining on a variety of current issues: the Benghazi tragedy, the fate of President Obama’s nominee for chief of the Air Force, the federal budget deficit. Open the nation’s leading newspapers, and you’ll regularly find Ayotte quoted and photographed – last week she even rated the New York Times’s “Quote of the Day.” Washington writers and TV journalists no doubt find her an interesting new voice, especially at a time when her party’s leaders are mostly familiar, gray-haired older men whose views are predictable and well-known.

We don’t agree with Ayotte on everything. Specifically, we would urge her to rethink her position on gun control. And at a time when thousands of her constituents appear eager to sign up for insurance through the Affordable Care Act, we’d encourage her to drop her opposition to a law that has survived both a presidential election and Supreme Court vetting and – despite its frustrating rollout – holds the promise of starting to fix one of the country’s biggest problems.

But as a civil war rages within the Republican Party, there are far worse things for New Hampshire than a senator whose opinion and vote can’t be taken for granted and who is interested in being a serious player in the key debates of the day.

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