Kelly Ayotte protest sparks debate over campaign tactics

  • In a photo provided by 350.org, Sen. Kelly Ayotte is followed by protesters wearing Donald Trump masks during a Manchester road race last week. Courtesy

Monitor staff
Tuesday, August 16, 2016

As Kelly Ayotte jogged down Canal Street in Manchester last week alongside hundreds of other runners, a half-dozen Donald Trump heads bobbed behind the Republican U.S. senator.

Volunteers with the climate advocacy group 350 Action wore the Trump masks while trailing Ayotte during part of the charity race. The group filmed the protest and posted the video on YouTube under the header “Kelly Ayotte Can’t Run From Her Trump Problem.”

The video has sparked a debate about political campaign tactics and when they cross the line from fair play to harassment.

Some said the image of Ayotte being chased by masked men evoked negative connotations of stalking.

“It just jumped out as something that I really found distasteful,” said Byron Champlin, a Democrat and Concord city councilor who posted about the image on his Facebook page. “There are First Amendment rights that need to be protected, but I think the tone says a lot about who we are as a people, and the level of respect we give to elected officials.”

Others said that Ayotte, a sitting senator in the midst of a competitive re-election campaign, should be prepared to face scrutiny.

“If I had my druthers, none of these tactics would be employed, but they have been used now for several cycles and they are not going to go away,” said Judy Reardon, a political consultant for the New Hampshire Democratic Party. “A candidate needs to prepare herself that these sort of tactics are going to occur.”

Opposition is common on the trail, and campaigns often come up with flashy ways to grab headlines.

Ayotte’s camp has recently carried a cardboard cutout of Democratic competitor Gov. Maggie Hassan to events. The New Hampshire Democratic Party had a volunteer dress up like Trump and deliver a thank-you note to Ayotte’s Manchester office.

Independent protesters regularly show up at candidate town hall meetings or public speeches. Campaigns often hire “trackers” to follow and film opposing candidates constantly, in an effort to catch gaffes on tape.

Sometimes the tactics can get contentious. In a high-profile 2014 incident, a state Republican Party staffer was arrested on a disorderly conduct charge when he showed up to a Londonderry parade wearing a chicken outfit and clucked at U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Hassan as they walked the route. The charge was eventually dropped due to lack of evidence, according to Londonderry police Detective Christopher Olson.

Over time, confrontations between the public and elected officials have intensified and taken on a nastier tone, according to Wayne Lesperance, a political science professor at New England College.

“There’s been a coarsening of our political structure, where now the people are fair game, not just the institutions they serve in,” he said. “It reflects genuine anger and frustration about government.”

Just 19 percent of Americans say they “trust the federal government always or most of the time,” the Pew Research Center found, and that’s among the lowest level in 50 years.

New Hampshire’s U.S. Senate race is one of the most competitive, and expensive, in the country. Millions of dollars are already pouring in from outside groups.

To campaign, Ayotte often runs local charity road races, including the Cigna/Elliot Corporate 5K Road Race last Thursday.

350 Action, an organization that seeks to limit carbon emissions, made headlines during the presidential primary race when it interrupted a Dover town hall hosted by Democrat Hillary Clinton, according to MSNBC. The organization did not respond to a request for comment.

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