U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte still supports Donald Trump, despite attack

  • Sen. Kelly Ayotte visits Hypertherm, a New Hampshire based manufacturer, in Lebanon on Tuesday, July 19, 2016. Ayotte, who is running for re-election, has no plans to attend the Republican National Convention in Ohio this week. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Monitor staff
Published: 8/4/2016 1:46:17 AM

U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte continues to support Donald Trump, her spokeswoman said, despite the GOP presidential nominee’s verbal attack Tuesday on the fellow Republican.

Ayotte remains locked with Democratic challenger Maggie Hassan in a competitive race that could determine control of the U.S. Senate. While Republicans in Washington have been funneling millions of dollars into New Hampshire to defend Ayotte’s seat, Trump took a shot at her during an interview with the Washington Post, questioning whether she should be in office.

“I don’t know Kelly Ayotte. I know she’s given me no support – zero support – and yet I’m leading her in the polls,” Trump told the Post, without citing a specific poll. “I’m doing very well in New Hampshire. We need loyal people in this country. We need fighters in this country. We don’t need weak people.”

Trump’s statement highlights the awkward spot Ayotte finds herself in this election as she tries to support the Republican ticket while casting herself to voters as an independent voice for New Hampshire.

Ayotte has been critical of Trump at times, and said this week she was “appalled” by Trump’s continued attacks on the parents of slain Muslim American U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan.

Responding to Trump’s interview in the Post, Ayotte said Tuesday: “I call it like I see it, and I’m always going to stand up for our military families and what’s best for the people of New Hampshire.”

She did not, however, withdraw support for the nominee. Ayotte has long said she will vote for Trump, but not endorse him. The wordplay has earned ridicule from Democrats, who have tried to tie Ayotte to Trump and his controversial policies at every turn.

Trump’s attack on Ayotte surprised Republicans in New Hampshire. But some said it could be a net positive for Ayotte’s campaign because it shows she isn’t aligned with Trump.

“It can only help,” said Steve Duprey, former finance chairman of Kelly for New Hampshire. “Kelly Ayotte is an independent voice and when Donald Trump criticizes her, it just proves the point.”

But Democrats said Tuesday that Ayotte’s brief statement shows she “lacks the backbone” to stand up to Trump.

“Kelly Ayotte’s presidential candidate is seldom correct, but he hit the nail on the head when he labeled her ‘weak,’ ” said New Hampshire Democratic Party Press Secretary Melissa Miller in a statement.

Ayotte declined an interview request with the Monitor on Wednesday. Honorary campaign co-chairwoman Donna Sytek and Duprey said she is focused on winning her election here, not fighting Trump.

“It’s just not good manners to attack the nominee of your party,” Sytek said.

Trump “is irrelevant to the Senate race,” Duprey said. “She is showing the kind of leadership she is known for, she is turning the other cheek when he is attacking her personally.”

But should Ayotte and Trump win, the relationship becomes relevant. Duprey said “she can cross that bridge when she gets to it.”

Jim Rubens, Ayotte’s primary challenger, has sought to capitalize on Trump’s attack. “Donald Trump has outed Ayotte,” Rubens said in a statement. “President Trump will need a strong leader in the U.S. Senate to help turn our country around, and I’m ready.”

Trump campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks did not respond when the Monitor asked whether Trump would endorse Rubens in the primary.

Trump’s refusal this week to endorse other top Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Arizona Sen. John McCain, has driven further divisions within the party.

Al Baldasaro, a Trump veterans coalition co-chairman, said Ayotte can stand on her own record this election. He’s not concerned Trump’s words will hurt her re-election chances or party unity.

“We tend to eat our own in the GOP, but we will come together,” said Baldasaro, a Londonderry state representative who earlier this week echoed Trump’s criticism of the Khan family, saying they used their son as a “political pawn.”

Recent polls show Ayotte statistically tied with Hassan. But nearly 70 percent of voters are still trying to decide, according to the latest WMUR Granite State Poll.

Despite Trump’s assertion he leads Ayotte in the polls, the latest WMUR Granite State Poll shows Democrat Hillary Clinton is leading Trump 39 to 37 percent. Ayotte is polling at 42 percent against Hassan’s 45 percent.

Trump won the New Hampshire primary by double-digit margins, earning more than 30 percent of the Republican vote. While Trump is deadlocked with Clinton, both candidates are highly unpopular among voters, the poll showed.

Still, Ayotte needs to tread lightly around Trump supporters before the Sept. 13 primary, said Dartmouth College government professor Linda Fowler.

“She is in a very awkward position because she doesn’t want to publicly antagonize Republican primary voters who think they are going to vote for Trump,” she said. “She hopes by issuing a non-committal statement it will go away, because Trump will say something outrageous to somebody else.”

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)

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