WASHINGTON (AP) — New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte is boldly taking on a role most of her fellow Republicans have been unwilling to bear: public foil to Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz.
Readying for what could be a tough re-election bid in an increasingly swing state, Ayotte has challenged the firebrand Texas senator as he has pushed the Senate to resist compromise and deny taxpayer money to Planned Parenthood even if it means a government shutdown. While other Republicans of the famously back-slapping Senate have opted to work against Cruz behind the scenes, the 47-year-old Ayotte has been front and center as the anti-Cruz.
In 2013, Ayotte confronted Cruz at a Republican caucus meeting, challenging him on some of the tactics that led to the 16-day, partial government shutdown that year. Two years later, she sent him a letter asking pointedly how another shutdown could possibly be successful for the GOP.
"During the last government shutdown, I repeatedly asked you what your strategy for success was ... but I did not receive an answer," she wrote. "I am again asking this question and would appreciate you sharing your strategy for success with all of us before any damaging government shutdown becomes imminent."
Cruz did not respond directly, but he wrote in an editorial that Republicans are committed to "surrender politics."
Unbowed, Ayotte stood on the Senate floor to ask "what is the end game" as hardline conservatives like Cruz insisted on defunding Planned Parenthood in the spending bill. Democrats had enough votes to block the provision, which Republicans have pushed after secretly recorded videos raised questions about the group's handling of fetal tissue for scientific research. President Barack Obama also has promised a veto.
"I am tired of the political games," Ayotte said, arguing that tying the abortion fight to the spending bill is a dangerous game of "chicken," even though she agreed with Planned Parenthood's detractors.
Ayotte, who also is the subject of vice presidential buzz, is betting that pragmatism is appealing in the "Live Free or Die" state. She has been popular there, but is watching her back as also-popular Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan is mulling a run against her next year. By taking on Cruz, Ayotte can counter Democratic attacks that she is too conservative.
"It's almost risk-free politics in New Hampshire," said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. "She's doing it deliberately, and I think it's a good decision."
Her approach has also drawn the attention of her colleagues. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Ayotte "has already acquired a reputation around here for personal courage. She'll stand up to anybody."
McCain is familiar with New Hampshire and the state's politics, having won the state in the 2000 and 2008 Republican presidential primaries.
"She is reflecting the majority view of her constituents," he said.
Once a solidly red state, New Hampshire has supported a Democrat in all but one presidential year since 1992. And Democratic turnout is typically much higher in presidential election years, making Ayotte's re-election in 2016 a tougher prospect than her first winning Senate campaign in 2010. Ayotte's fellow New Hampshire senator, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, held onto her seat in 2014 despite strong GOP gains around the country, while Hassan comfortably won a second term as governor.
National Democrats have already raised Planned Parenthood in the race, airing ads criticizing Ayotte for her support to defund it, even though she fought against tying it to the spending bill.
"Her rhetoric on women's health care and government funding should be seen for what it is: political maneuvering solely designed to mislead voters," read one missive from the Democratic political action committee Senate Majority PAC.
Mindful of the race ahead, Ayotte is shoring up support at home. She called for New Hampshire Rep. Frank Guinta, also a Republican, to resign after the Federal Election Commission found that he accepted $355,000 in illegal contributions from his parents during his 2010 campaign. There was concern that Guinta's scandal could be a drag on all Republicans at the top of the ballot.
A fellow northeastern senator, Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Ayotte asks the tough questions that are sometimes needed. Still, Collins says Ayotte is not the only one challenging Cruz. She said many do so privately.
"There's not an absence of vigorous debate in our caucus," Collins said. "Some people choose to go public with it, some chose not to."
Indeed, Republicans have used a variety of quiet procedural tactics to stymie Cruz, including preventing him from calling a vote or speaking at length on Monday night after the Senate voted to avoid a conservative filibuster on the spending bill. The Senate passed the bill to keep the government open on Wednesday morning and the House was expected to follow suit before the midnight deadline.
Ayotte said it was clear that most of her colleagues agreed with her.
"Writing that letter I reflected the view of certainly more than just myself," she said Tuesday.
Associated Press writer Kathleen Ronayne in Concord, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.
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