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Ayotte facing a whole new political ballgame

Last modified: 7/9/2015 2:11:04 PM
As far as Kathleen Veracco can recall, her daughter didn’t show much of an interest in running any kind of campaign growing up, until she was a student at Penn State seeking out a position as president of the school’s largest sorority leadership organization.

Veracco, for her part, held a few community posts over the years and worked as a lobbyist in Concord for a long time – but aside from talking about the importance of voting, she said their family was not especially political.

“It was the first time she had to put together a campaign, do speeches, get out and meet everybody,” Veracco recalled last week, thinking back on the college-era election.

That daughter, Kelly Ayotte, went on to win that race. And in the years since, she’s moved from a career in private legal practice to leading the state’s homicide unit to serving as its first female attorney general and, eventually, returning to the campaign trail – this time, in a bid for the U.S. Senate in 2010. Now, Ayotte has officially launched her bid to hold onto that seat in 2016.

It has been surreal, to be sure, for Veracco to watch how quickly things have changed for her daughter since that run in 2010.

“The first time I saw her on FOX News, I was kind of amazed,” she said. “ ‘Oh my god, that’s my daughter.’ I was obviously very proud.”

In the last six years, Ayotte has gone from a “blank slate” – not overtly political during her time as attorney general, by many accounts – to one of the most prominent voices within her party, both in New Hampshire and nationally.

A frequently tapped television commentator, a speaker at the 2012 Republican National Convention and an oft-rumored vice presidential pick, the Republican senator enters this race with a significantly more public political profile. She now has a voting record that doesn’t strictly follow party lines.

Balancing her socially and fiscally conservative beliefs with a desire not to let ideology inhibit her ability to get things done has been something of a balancing act, one that has earned her criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike.

Ayotte, for her part, knows that she can’t please everybody.

“You know, no party has all the solutions. And for me, it’s about getting results for people in New Hampshire and our country,” Ayotte said, traveling between stops around Nashua and Manchester on the day of her re-election launch last week. “And that means I don’t get to just be in a position where – if you don’t work across the aisle, you’re not going to get results. You can’t pass legislation. So for me, I want to get results for people. I want to get things done. I don’t want to just talk about the problems, I want to find ways that we can get results.”

Earlier this year, Ayotte returned to the campus where she embarked on that initial campaign to deliver the commencement address at Pennsylvania State University’s Dickinson School of Law. In between her advice to new graduates on their paths forward in the legal profession, Ayotte slipped in a note that underscored the message she’s now trying to promote in her campaign.

“If we don’t nurture our political system, or if we overly politicize it, we will erode it,” Ayotte told the graduates, “and by eroding it, we will erode our democracy.”

Finding her place

The last six years have seen no shortage of attempts to draw parallels between Ayotte and other politicians. When she started exploring a Senate bid, many Republicans were left trying to figure out where, exactly, Ayotte would fit within the party ranks.

Even before she declared her candidacy, Ayotte was dogged by allegations that she was a favorite among the beltway crowd, in part because the National Republican Senate Campaign Committee was quick to line up behind her (as reported by the Monitor).

This year, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has wasted no time going after one of Ayotte’s potential opponents – Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, who has not announced plans to run – with attacks over her handling of the state budget.

From the outset of Ayotte’s introduction to New Hampshire politics, Democrats were quick to draw comparisons to another once-rising Republican star: Sarah Palin. The former Alaskan governor endorsed Ayotte in her first election bid (dubbing her a “Granite Grizzly”), but would later accuse Ayotte of “flip-flopping” on her immigration stance and suggested that she should face a primary challenge in her next election, as reported by WMUR in 2013.

Others initially figured Ayotte might emulate moderate Maine Sen. Susan Collins – but, as University of New Hampshire political scientist Dante Scala sees it, “That was based on really nothing more than that they’re both Republicans and both women.”

One of her closest allies in Washington, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, has frequently drawn comparison to another female leader.

“She’s tough as nails,” Graham said on a New Hampshire visit earlier this year, “she’s a Margaret Thatcher in the making.”

The senator, for her part, said she looks primarily to two New Hampshire predecessors – Warren Rudman and Judd Gregg – for inspiration, citing their ability to work across the aisle and Gregg’s focus on fiscal and environmental issues, in particular.

On a more personal level, Ayotte was quick to call her mom, Veracco, “her biggest role model.” She also learned a lot from her late grandfather, a World War II veteran, pointing to “his faith, his family” and his “hardworking grit.”

Her mother, meanwhile, says the advice she’s always given her daughter has been pretty simple.

“I’ve always said: Just be yourself. Focus on what you’re doing and achieve your goal,” Veracco said. “It seems to work for her, anyway.”

Balancing national, 
N.H. interests

While Ayotte has gained national prominence, the pending election will require that she prove to New Hampshire voters that she’s still stayed in touch with their needs at home.

Just as voters saw Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, last election cycle, pointing over and over again to the work she did to benefit the state, so, too, are voters likely to see Ayotte focusing on issues close to home. Already, the theme is showing through.

“Listening to New Hampshire is my priority,” Ayotte declared in her debut re-election campaign video, before noting that she’s paying attention to the state’s substance abuse issues and working to help veterans, among others.

At a town hall in Colebrook earlier this week, Ayotte started – as she usually does – with a slide show on the state of the country’s finances, focusing heavily on the scope of the national debt. To bring it home for the audience, she framed the cost of the deficit in terms of how many bottles of New Hampshire maple syrup it could buy. (Answer: 40 gallons of syrup for every person in America.)

As she continued to speak and field questions from the group, Ayotte returned again and again to things she was trying to do for the state and made sure to note her status as one of the Senate’s most bipartisan members.

This frequent talking point is just another sign of the changing challenges she faces this time around.

“Everything just broke her way in 2010,” Scala said. In 2016, “it’s not going to be like that.”

The first-time political candidate barely eked out a primary win over Manchester attorney Ovide Lamontagne – beating him by a mere 1,667 votes in a contest that wasn’t decided until the day after the election. She had an easier path to victory in the general election, triumphing over former Democratic congressman Paul Hodes with 60 percent of the vote.

Different demographics

Working in Ayotte’s favor last time around: The 2010 midterm elections, which saw a surge in the Tea Party’s political prominence and were not kind to Democrats nationwide. While Ayotte was viewed as less of a “Tea Party” candidate than her primary opponent, Lamontagne, she nonetheless benefited from the outpouring of conservative discontent that year, local political analysts said.

A presidential year, though, is a whole new ballgame.

It’s a “fundamentally different demographic mix,” said New Hampshire political scientist Dean Spiliotes. To keep her seat, Ayotte has to play the long game beyond any potential primary challenge – presenting herself in a way that might win over not just Republicans, but the state’s undeclared voters and perhaps some Democrats, too.

The challenges facing Ayotte are not unlike those that faced her Granite State Senatorial partner, Shaheen. In last year’s election, Shaheen – a popular incumbent and former governor – faced a close race against former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown.

And just as Shaheen was dogged by attacks from Republicans labeling her as a liberal partisan extremist, Ayotte is facing similar attacks from Democrats. Party officials have for months linked any and all woes facing New Hampshire Republicans to Ayotte, inundating reporters’ inboxes and public social media feeds with criticism of her actions at home and in Washington.

“They’re going to paint her as more extreme wing of the Republican party, just as Republicans would try to do with Jeanne Shaheen,” Spiliotes said. “I don’t think anybody would think Jeanne Shaheen is a left-wing progressive by any means.”

Voters’ views differ

Impressions of Ayotte among New Hampshire voters vary widely, depending on who you’re talking to. There are some Republicans who see her willingness to buck the party line as a good thing. Others, not so much.

The candidate’s taken flak from members of her own party in New Hampshire for, among other things, her vote to confirm Attorney General Loretta Lynch and her openness to immigration reform.

Ayotte further complicated her relationship with the more conservative wing of the New Hampshire Republican party by signing a letter encouraging representatives to vote for Rep. Gene Chandler over Rep. Bill O’Brien for Speaker of the House last fall. O’Brien has since repeatedly denounced Ayotte on his Facebook page, casting doubt upon her conservative credentials. Some voters have echoed this skepticism.

Russell and Lydia Cumbee, of Franconia, said they supported Ayotte the first time she ran. But when asked, at the Belknap County GOP Cruise last month, whether they would back her again, both hesitated.

“She’s drifted in the establishment Republican, RINO direction,” Russell Cumbee said. Her decision to speak out against Rep. Frank Guinta in the wake of the congressman’s campaign finance scandal earlier this year also rubbed Cumbee the wrong way.

“She can’t keep her mouth shut, either. She jumps in and endorses people in the primary. I believe she came out and told Frank Guinta he should resign,” he added. “That’s none of her damn business.”

Former Speaker of the House Donna Sytek, who’s reprising her role as a co-chair of Ayotte’s campaign, has heard plenty of the complaints about Ayotte being too moderate or too bipartisan.

“Would you rather have a Democrat?” Sytek usually responds. “She’s able to carry the Republican banner and do things that are important to New Hampshire, if it takes reaching across party lines to do that – I salute her for doing that.”

Other voters are indeed picking up on just the kind of “solutions”-driven, above-the-partisan-fray, just-your-average-New Hampshire-resident image she’s tried to cultivate.

Katie Mack – who brought her two daughters to one of the Ayotte’s regular “Coffee With Kelly” events during their vacation to Washington this spring – said she appreciated the ability to recognize elements of her own life in Ayotte’s public persona.

“Relatable” and “assertive,” Mack said, adding that Ayotte seemed like someone who doesn’t easily cave to outside pressures.

“You usually don’t find a young woman, a conservative woman” in politics, Mack said. “She’s a good role model.”

At the town hall in Colebrook on Wednesday, Ayotte also earned praise from the crowd. In particular, several made a point to commend her partnership with Shaheen.

“I do like the way the two ladies are working together, that’s what needs to happen,” Anne Sullivan, one attendee, said after the senator left for her next stop.

“I’m so sick of everyone fighting down there,” Arnold Goodrum, another Colebrook resident, piped in.

“And I think that’s probably the consensus of the country today,” Sullivan continued.

Goodrum, meanwhile, said he usually leans toward Democrats but would consider supporting Ayotte – though he hasn’t made up his mind for sure. An Army veteran, he especially appreciated Ayotte’s emphasis on expanding access through the VA system.

“I hope the governor does not run,” Goodrum said, referring to the possibility that Hassan would challenge Ayotte next year. “We need her more than the Senate needs her. I hope she stays, I hope Ayotte stays.”

Then there was Richard Hill III, another Colebrook resident, who arrived early and sat front and center at the town hall. The Republican-turned-Independent was turned off, he said, by the rise of “extreme right-wing” conservatives in recent years. He readily conceded that he didn’t agree with Ayotte on everything.

“Do I think it was a wrong decision to be part of the infamous 47 regarding the letter to Iran? Yes, because it wouldn’t have been done with a Republican president. Do I agree with the new GOP budget? No. Because it hurts the middle class,” Hill said.

But he didn’t just have criticism.

“I don’t agree with her national politics, but I do agree with what she’s doing in the state,” Hill explained, calling the Ayotte a “straight shooter” and citing her work on veterans issues, her views on Northern Pass and recent votes on Social Security.

He showed up on Wednesday proudly bearing a T-shirt he designed himself: “Keep Kelly Ayotte, She’s Just Right for NH.”

After the town hall wrapped up, Ayotte paused on the way out. She wanted to make sure to get a photo with him.



(Casey McDermott can be reached at 369-3306 or cmcdermott@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @caseymcdermott.)


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