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Capital Beat

Capital Beat: Ayotte takes heat for background-checks vote, but 2016’s a long way away

Is U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte taking heat for her vote this month against expanded background checks? Absolutely.

The Republican has been targeted by an avalanche of letters to the editor and newspapers editorials (including from the Monitor). A national gun-control group is airing a radio ad with a woman sneering that “it sure didn’t take long for her to ‘go Washington.’ ” A Democratic polling firm took a survey after the vote showing Ayotte with a negative approval rating in the state.

“New Hampshire is a good bellwether for fallout from the gun vote,” said Dean Debnam, Public Policy Polling’s president, in a statement. “There’s serious backlash from voters toward Kelly Ayotte for how she handled this issue.”

But does all this mean she’s vulnerable in the next election? That’s a tough sell, especially since she won’t be up for re-election until 2016.

“If there’s going to be a hit, it’s probably only going to be in the short term for now. . . . By the time she’s up for re-election, there will probably be a lot more proximate issues,” said Dean Spiliotes, a political analyst and civic scholar at Southern New Hampshire University. “It’ll probably come up, but whether it’ll have the same impact . . . is hard to say.”

Most Republican senators and a few Democrats voted the same way Ayotte did April 17, when she opposed a proposal to require background checks at gun shows and for firearm purchases over the internet. She supported an alternative proposal to reform the background-checks system, which also failed.

Polls show strong support in New Hampshire for expanded background checks, though there are plenty of gun-rights activists happy with her stand. “I think she took a vote that really resonated with the base up here,” said Republican strategist Jim Merrill.

But Ayotte was one of the last senators to announce her position on the legislation, and one of the deciding votes to block the proposal. That’s made her a target, and the response from gun-control advocates has been both loud and harsh.

Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group founded by ex-congresswoman Gabby Giffords and husband Mark Kelly, began

airing a 60-second radio ad in New Hampshire last week attacking Ayotte.

And PPP’s poll, taken April 19-21 with a 3.2 percent margin of error, showed 44 percent of New Hampshire voters approving of the job Ayotte’s doing, versus 46 percent who said they disapprove.

In a potential 2016 race against Gov. Maggie Hassan, the poll found, Ayotte would be two points down.

A different poll out last week, from the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, showed Ayotte in better shape, with 50 percent of adults saying they had a favorable opinion of her and 25 percent saying they had an unfavorable opinion.

But that poll, which had a 4.4 percent margin of error, was taken April 4-9, before the background-checks vote. (Its release was delayed due to the Boston Marathon bombings.)

UNH pollster Andy Smith doesn’t think the results would have been much different after the vote.

“I would think it would have very little effect,” Smith said. “My sense is that most people couldn’t tell you who their senator or congressman is, much less how they voted on a particular issue.”

Democrats, at least, will be reminding people about this particular vote for a while. But 2016 is a long way away, and opponents of gun-control legislation tend to be both better organized and more engaged than its supporters, noted Dick Swett, a Democrat and former congressman who knows something about the politics of gun control.

In 1994, Swett voted for a ban on assault weapons that passed the U.S. House by just two votes. A few months later, he lost his seat to Republican Charlie Bass, a loss he credits to his vote for the ban.

Whether Ayotte’s vote on background checks has legs for the next three years, he said, has a lot to do with whether she sets a pattern of siding with national conservatives against public opinion in her own state.

“If Kelly continues to pick sides like this, on very extreme positions, I think she’s going to be in real trouble, and she’s going to be perceived as not acting in the interests of New Hampshire citizens,” Swett said.

Hassan, Shaheen popular

That PPP poll last week showed Hassan in good shape less than four months after taking office. She’s fairly popular, with 50 percent of voters saying they approve of the job she’s doing and 31 percent disapproving.

And she did well in several match-ups against potential 2014 Republican opponents:

∎ 52 percent to 38 percent for Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley,

∎ 53 percent to 37 percent for Executive Councilor Chris Sununu,

∎ 51 percent to 35 percent for Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas,

∎ 54 percent to 36 percent for former congressman Frank Guinta, and,

∎ 52 percent to 32 percent for former gubernatorial candidate Kevin Smith.

UNH’s poll earlier in the month found 51 percent approving of Hassan’s job performance, 11 percent disapproving and 37 percent saying they were neutral or didn’t know.

PPP also had good news for U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, finding 53 percent approving of her job performance versus 39 percent who disapproved. The UNH survey found 59 percent regarding her favorably versus 23 percent with an unfavorable opinion of the Democrat.

Shaheen also leads various Republicans going into the 2014 election, according to PPP. At the moment, her closest race would be against former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown, who had 41 percent to her 52 percent.

Lukewarm on the reps

The UNH poll didn’t have such good news for New Hampshire’s two Democratic congresswomen.

In the 1st District, U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter was viewed favorably by 31 percent of residents, versus 32 percent who held an unfavorable opinion, 11 percent who were neutral and 26 percent who said they didn’t know.

In the 2nd District, 29 percent of adults say they had a favorable opinion of U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, versus 30 percent with an unfavorable opinion, 8 percent who were neutral and 34 percent who said they did’t know.

New Hampshire Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Horn gloated that Kuster and Shea-Porter “are losing support because Granite Staters are fed up with their votes for higher taxes, reckless spending and more debt.”

Note the sample sizes weren’t huge in either district, so the margins of error were high: 6.5 percent in the 1st District, 5.9 percent in the 2nd.

Chandler’s condemnations

House Minority Leader Gene Chandler is probably a little weary of condemning members of his caucus.

Twice in the past two weeks, the Bartlett Republican has issued scathing news releases about fellow House Republicans. Two weeks ago he demanded an apology from Rep. Peter Hansen, the Amherst Republican who referred to women as “vaginas” in an all-House email. (Hansen then apologized.)

Last week, Chandler blasted Rep. Stella Tremblay, the Auburn Republican who repeatedly and unapologetically suggested that the U.S. government was behind the April 15 bombings at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

Both Republicans and Democrats are perennially eager to jump on gaffes, questionable tweets and other sources of potential controversy for members of the other party. But the reaction to Tremblay’s comments was notable for how quickly and forcefully Republican leaders distanced themselves from her.

“Rep. Tremblay’s comments are highly offensive, egregious and irrational. They are severely troubling and unbecoming of any public office holder or citizen of our great nation,” Chandler said in his statement. “I am ashamed that Rep. Tremblay saw fit to disseminate radical conspiracy theories online. She in no way represents the views of the caucus, the Republican Party or the Granite State.”

Of course, that’s not stopping Democrats from using Tremblay as a bludgeon against the GOP.

“Even for the New Hampshire Republican Party, which has become synonymous with the Tea Party and radical extremism, Rep. Tremblay’s claims are a new low,” said New Hampshire Democratic Party spokesman Harrell Kirstein.

Patten ducks out

Republicans aren’t the only House members making embarrassing headlines.

The state GOP was quick last week to call for an investigation of Democratic Rep. Dick Patten of Concord. A 20-year-old man has obtained a temporary stalking order against Patten, also a city councilor; Patten’s lawyer has said they look forward to exploring the man’s motivations at a May 10 court hearing.

Patten did show up for Wednesday’s House session, a day after the news broke – he was hard to miss in a large yellow sash. (Several members were wearing similar sashes for Grange Day.)

But he ducked out of Representatives Hall after preliminary announcements, and didn’t return for any votes. He said in an email he was busy in part setting up a Grange Day lunch in the Legislative Office Building.

Shea-Porter silent?

Shaheen and Ayotte were vocal last week as they battled the “Marketplace Fairness Act,” legislation that would require businesses to collect out-of-state sales tax on purchases made over the internet.

Ayotte has spoken on the Senate floor several times against the bill. Shaheen filed two amendments to shield states that, like New Hampshire, don’t have a sales tax themselves.

The legislation’s backers have the advantage in the Senate – the vote Thursday to end debate was 63-30, though a final vote has been delayed until May 6.

Assuming it passes, the ball will be in the House’s court. President Obama supports the bill, but Kuster said Thursday it “would impose overly burdensome tax collection requirements on New Hampshire’s small businesses.”

In fact, the only member of New Hampshire’s delegation who didn’t weigh in last week was Shea-Porter. So we asked her office what she thinks.

“No corresponding bill has been brought to the House floor,” spokesman Ben Wakana wrote in an email. “Congresswoman Shea-Porter supports the Shaheen amendment to protect businesses in non-sales tax states from having to collect sales taxes from other jurisdictions on their online sales.”

Senate vs. House

When the Senate meets Thursday, it’s set to kill a number of bills that passed the House. Committees have recommended rejecting, among others, a bill decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, a ban on prison privatization and legislation that would allow funeral homes to offer alkaline hydrolysis, sometimes called chemical cremation.

A bill that would establish the white potato as New Hampshire’s official state vegetable, though, is going to the floor with a 5-0 endorsement from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The Executive Council meets Wednesday morning. The House won’t meet this week.

Quick takes

∎ Organizers say about 35 state representatives have joined a new bipartisan Environmental Caucus in the House.

∎ Kuster will speak Tuesday morning at the Grappone Conference Center in Concord, at a briefing organized by the Business and Industry Association and the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce.

∎ A “Rally for Commonsense Immigration Reform” is planned Wednesday outside the State House at noon.

∎ The Senate Finance Committee will hold a hearing on the state budget May 9, from 3 to 5 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. in Representatives Hall.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

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