Trump’s Rise in New Hampshire Threatens One of GOP’s Biggest Stars
New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte isn't on the ballot Tuesday, but she has a lot to lose from a Trump win.
MANCHESTER, N.H. — Kelly Ayotte, the New Hampshire Republican senator, wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“Come on, this is the best part!” she insisted, already suited up in a hardhat and goggles. The “best part” was a tour of a Concord, N.H., energy-from-waste plant, complete with a furnace fire, turbines, and, most important: voters.
The roughly dozen men in uniform work shirts with embroidered name tags stood around the control room awkwardly. “You don’t look like a shy bunch,” Ayotte joked. One asked if she’d run for governor, a comment that brought a round of laughter given that Ayotte is currently fighting for reelection against the state’s current governor, Maggie Hassan, a popular Democrat.
“We’ve got a little election on Tuesday,” Ayotte said, referring to the presidential primary here and the onslaught of media and candidates it brings.
That wasn’t a surprise to anyone. “I get three or four calls a night now, it’s pretty annoying,” one said. “They got my email … don’t know how they did that,” another volunteered. Ayotte said she sympathized: Volunteers for the competing Republican candidates have been knocking on her door and sending two of every mailer to her house.
Ayotte herself isn’t on the ticket Tuesday, but she has a lot riding on the results. New Hampshire will help to further winnow the field of GOP candidates, with current and former governors John Kasich of Ohio, Chris Christie of New Jersey, and Jeb Bush of Florida hinging their campaigns’ future on the results. Ayotte has a lot at stake as well: If frontrunner Donald Trump takes the state and ultimately becomes the party’s nominee, he risks alienating the very voters — women, moderates, and New Hampshire’s large population of independents — she needs to win reelection.
Ayotte is arguably the most powerful Republican woman in 2016: a leader on defense, one of only six GOP women in the Senate, a previous member of her party’s vice presidential shortlist — and a potential future pick. But in scrambling the presidential election, outsider candidates Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz have complicated her efforts to keep her seat.
That could be good news for Democrats and a serious threat to Republican efforts to hold the Senate. Even without Trump and Cruz, Republicans faced an unfavorable electoral map in 2016: They hold only a four-seat majority as they defend 24 seats, many of which Obama won in 2012, versus Democrats’ 10. It’s almost a mirror image of what Democrats faced in the 2014 midterms, when New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a well-liked former governor, was the only vulnerable Democrat to survive a nine-seat GOP pickup that rode the rising wave of anti-establishment anger and anxiety over the Islamic State that’s now washed over the country.
Having made a name for herself on national security from the outset of her Senate career, Ayotte was already in a tricky spot in finding herself facing a popular Democratic governor in Hassan, who has the strong backing of Shaheen and other well-known figures in the state. Now Trump and Cruz are making that election fight even harder.
Ayotte chairs the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on military readiness; Trump has said he gets his military advice “from the shows,” and, during Saturday night’s debate, boasted he would “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” to interrogate detainees. Cruz has called for barring Muslims from the U.S., and, in the debate, “absolutely” loosening the U.S. military’s rules of engagement even though top generals say it would lead to civilian casualties. Cruz is openly loathed by the GOP leadership; by contrast, the Manchester police chief told Foreign Policy that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell described Ayotte to him as “a rock star.”
Since at least April of 2015, Ayotte and Hassan have traded leads, but with the governor taking over only four times, by narrow margins. As of Monday, Ayotte is up 4.7 points, according to a Real Clear Politics polling average. A Trump- or Cruz-led presidential ticket, though, could give the seat to Hassan.
Ayotte’s plant visit made clear she is well aware of the risk. She told the workers one of the things she loves most about New Hampshire is its notorious unpredictability, seemingly hoping the polls showing a Trump win would prove wrong. Though observers broadly panned Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s robotic debate performance Saturday, Ayotte noted a day earlier that he is “rising” after a surprisingly strong finish in Iowa, and predicted a second-place win for him on Tuesday. “I think we’ll see a surprise — I’m sure there’ll be some surprise in this because there’s such a fractured field,” she said.
But even former New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu, who has known Ayotte for more than a dozen years and campaigned for her first Senate bid in 2010, was pessimistic. “I don’t think anybody’s going to have an easy victory this time around,” he told FP. “And I’m afraid that if a Donald Trump or a Cruz is at the top of the ticket, Republicans will lose a lot of seats, and it will make Kelly’s race extremely tough.”
Trump and Cruz have already demonstrated their ability to impact statewide races such as Ayotte’s. The Paris terror attacks in November sparked one of the most heated debates of the election cycle so far, over the flood of refugees fleeing Iraq and Syria. As a senator, Ayotte had to take a stand on legislation the Republican leadership in Congress rushed to deliver as Trump, Cruz, and others seized on public fear to call for the U.S. to effectively ban Muslims. Ayotte told FP in an interview last Wednesday she’s made herself very clear: such suggestions for a “Muslim ban” are “inconsistent with our First Amendment.” But she also called for a “pause” to U.S. resettlement of refugees from Syria and Iraq, and supported the SAFE Act to impose a tougher vetting process for asylum seekers, which the Obama administration opposed for going too far, as well as reforms to the visa waiver program, which had broader bipartisan support.
“Vetting of refugees or immigrants coming to our country should be fact-based, based on intelligence and evidence for everyone evenly, so to me that is the better way to protect our security,” she said.
Yet the issue also spilled over into Ayotte’s reelection campaign when Hassan became one of the only Democrats to join the chorus of Republican governors vowing to block refugees from being resettled in their states.
Hassan says she advocated for a halt to refugee resettlement because the heads of the FBI and CIA testified that there are intelligence gaps. “My first obligation is to the safety and security of New Hampshire,” Hassan told FP last week. “It is very important to take a temporary pause to really evaluate the strength of the vetting systems.”
What the agency chiefs also have said is that they can’t guarantee zero-risk. The U.S. vetting process for refugees is among the strictest in the world, taking roughly 18-24 months on average. The administration says there are only a relative handful of cases in which any refugee has been suspected of terrorist activity once resettled in the U.S.
Hassan struck a more compassionate note, saying, “We can’t demonize an entire people or religion,” but emphasized, “given there are truly evolving threats … there are legitimate concerns.”
“I learned a long time ago never to make predictions about the New Hampshire primary,” Hassan added. But the “critical thing” for candidates to remember about New Hampshire, is “We are a state that blends individualism and community like nowhere else.”
When you walk into Ayotte’s Washington, D.C., office, the first thing you notice is the moose. Oscar, as a plaque on the wall next to a map of the Appalachian trail will tell you, was the third largest bull moose, in weight and antler size, taken down in New Hampshire in 1994.
Such pastoral paraphernalia clashes with Ayotte’s staid Washington demeanor, and the break begs the question: Does her emphasis on national security create a disconnect with her roots in real-trail New Hampshire, and could it hurt her against Hassan, or help?
“She has certainly represented New Hampshire’s interests and values in Washington and yet she’s been able to give additional focus to the national security issue,” said Sununu, complimentary even as he acknowledged a conflict.
Ayotte, for her part, insists national security is a “top 2” issue for New Hampshire voters. She noted the state’s high proportion of veterans, as well as its defense installations, making sure to mention the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard where the military maintains submarines.
But New Hampshire also has a more personal connection to the fight against the Islamic State: James Foley, a journalist from Rochester, N.H., was beheaded on broadcasted video. Ayotte and Shaheen had been in touch with Foley’s family. “For all of us, they put a face — James put a very personal face for New Hampshire on the barbarity of the threat ISIS posed,” Ayotte said in an interview.
It’s partially why establishment Republicans like Ayotte and Sununu are struggling to understand Trump’s popularity in the polls: Granite Staters care about national security, but don’t seem to care about national security experience — at least when it comes to the top of the ticket.
Ayotte’s interest is personal; her husband served as a combat pilot (and she’s been an aggressive defender of the plane he flew, the A-10, as the military has attempted to retire it). Her grandfather, who passed away last year, was a WWII veteran. And it dates back to before she was a senator, she says, when she served as attorney general, the chief law enforcement officer in New Hampshire — a time she’s increasingly emphasizing in her reelection bid. Security, she said, is “the basic role of government, really.”
Before she was even sworn in after winning her Senate seat in 2010, her first elected office, McConnell selected Ayotte to travel with him and a few senators to Afghanistan and Pakistan. “The last time I had traveled overseas was when I went to Europe after college, did the backpacking thing,” she said. She went to “see what was happening on the ground” and came away pushing for an Armed Services Committee assignment.
Since, she’s been a dogged critic of the administration on national security, whether its decision to retire the A-10, or push to close the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. On all counts, she’s got opponents, such as those who say Congress is preventing the military from cutting costs because of parochial interests. An Air Force acquisition deputy said in 2014, as the battle over the A-10 heated up, that some lawmakers are trying to “keep a lot of people very happy for a very localized period of time, and maybe in a very localized part of the country, and maybe within a very localized company” — though Ayotte and others have clearly won out.
She said she is proud of the bipartisan tradition of the Armed Services Committee, and has nothing but warm words for Chairman John McCain of Arizona. McCain and his close colleague Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who dropped out of the 2016 presidential race, recruited Ayotte early on to join their militarily hawkish duo as their “third amigo,” replacing retired Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent.
Yet Ayotte has been especially careful to tweak her image as she approaches reelection, putting noticeable distance between herself and Graham, including his short-lived presidential campaign, and McCain, who faces his own tough reelection bid in Arizona. When asked about the chill, Ayotte’s spokeswoman says she has “great respect” for the senators, but “has always been her own person.”
When it comes to the ISIS fight, though, she’s still in the fold, joining her fellow Armed Services Committee hawks who slam the administration for what they claim is a lack of strategy. This summer, she told U.S. Central Command commander Gen. Lloyd Austin the Defense Department’s program to train moderate Syrian rebels was “a joke.” Yet she won’t go as far as Graham’s recommendation for 20,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria, as part of a coalition built mostly of Arab forces. Instead, she’s called for more U.S. military embedded with security forces on the ground to call in airstrikes, as most of the GOP presidential field has.
Though Ayotte has moved to the middle in some ways, she touted her 2010 win as one for conservatism in the liberal-leaning Northeast. As attorney general, she took an abortion parental notification law to the U.S. Supreme Court. She sought and got the death penalty for the first time in the state in 70 years, for the killer of a Manchester police officer named Michael Briggs, which she touted en route to her 2010 win.
Manchester Police Chief Nick Willard is careful to not be seen as tipping the scales between Hassan, with whom he works closely, and Ayotte, who he’s known for years since she was first a young lawyer in the state. Both, he says, have been passionate advocates amid the state’s debilitating drug crisis.
The first time Willard met Ayotte, they needed a witness statement from a homeless man living in the woods on the side of the highway. Ayotte insisted on going to find him. “She just said, ‘Let’s go,’ and we went traipsing through the woods,” he recounted. “One of her high heels got stuck in the mud at one point, she went climbing over this giant tree branch, and then she sat in this guy’s tent, doing an interview … that meant something to me.”
It’s this local flavor Ayotte will need to tap into to counter the Trump effect as she seeks reelection, rather than relationships with Washington national security heavyweights like McCain and Graham. Still, she remains personally close to her two amigos. When Trump gave away Graham’s personal cell phone number on television in July, the South Carolina senator, at a movie with Ayotte and her two young kids, started letting them answer.
Ayotte doesn’t seem to have much patience with that Trump-style of campaigning, where rhetoric and gimmick replaces substance on national security and bipartisanship is a dirty word. Asked whether she can run on non-partisanship in this hyper-partisan climate, she said, “The resounding answer is going to be yes.”
In the 2012 election, she was an early endorser of moderate Mitt Romney. But as talk of her joining his ticket swirled, it was accompanied by observations that at less than two years in the Senate, it may have been too soon.
Yet even now, when a worker at the plant on Friday asked about whether she’d consider joining one of the candidates’ tickets as vice president, Ayotte insisted she’s focused on reelection. “Washington’s a tough place, I don’t want to tell anyone differently,” she told the plant workers. “But I’m also someone who is able to work with people, focus on results and get things done.”
Asked whether he had known in their work together that Ayotte had political ambitions, Willard, the Manchester police chief, said “absolutely not.”
“I think what Kelly had,” he said, “is people who had ambitions for her.”
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