CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Long a rising star within the Republican party, U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte is now flashing her bipartisan credentials as she seeks to defend her seat from a challenge by Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan in a race that could be a key to determining control of the Senate.
Ayotte won her Senate seat in 2010 — in her first run for elected office — when Tea Party anger swept Republicans into office across the country. One of the youngest senators, Ayotte, now 47, quickly carved out a name for herself as a foreign policy hawk and has stood alongside her party on issues such as gun control and opposition to the Affordable Care Act. But she's also become one of the senators most likely to cross party lines, working with Democrats on legislation regarding veterans' health care, sexual assault in the military and heroin and opioid abuse.
"The hardest thing in politics, it's not actually standing up to the other side," Ayotte told The Associated Press. "It's actually sometimes standing up to your own party. If you look at who I'm representing, it's clearly the people of New Hampshire."
As the contest heats up, Ayotte is highlighting her work on veteran's health care, college affordability and the environment in an effort to appeal to independent voters who comprise more than 40 percent of the electorate in this swing state.
Democrats, meanwhile, are already painting her as a loyal foot soldier for big-money Republican interests.
"If you don't happen to be a well-connected Washington lobbyist or special interest, then unfortunately you're out of luck with Ayotte," state Democratic Party chair Ray Buckley said in a recent statement.
Ayotte grew up and attended public schools in Nashua, where she now lives with her husband, Joe Daley, and children Kate, 11, and Jake, 8. She went to college at Penn State and earned a law degree from Villanova University before returning to New Hampshire, where she soon became a state prosecutor focusing on homicide cases.
In 2004, then-Republican Gov. Craig Benson appointed her the state's first female attorney general and former Democratic Gov. John Lynch reappointed her twice. As attorney general, she successfully sought the death penalty in the case of Michael Addison, who was convicted of killing a police officer. In the 2010 race, opponents accused Ayotte of pursuing the death penalty to further her political ambitions.
To Ayotte's supporters, her toughness as a prosecutor and later as attorney general made her stand out. Republican Judd Gregg, who represented New Hampshire in the Senate for three terms, endorsed her to replace him during a close 2010 primary she won by fewer than 2,000 votes.
"That was the only time that I've ever gotten involved in a primary," Gregg said. "I dealt with her a fair amount when she was attorney general, she was always down to earth, substantive, and got things done. She showed she was tough."
Ayotte didn't always envision a future in politics but said her time as attorney general heightened her desire to run for Senate.
"My desire is to serve, to make a difference, to solve problems," she said. "I thought running for the U.S. Senate would give me an opportunity to make a difference on a larger platform."
Ayotte said being a mother and the wife of an Iraq war veteran helps shape the issues she cares about, from fixing the nation's debt to protecting the state's clean air and water to making sure veterans have easy access to health care. New Hampshire does not have a full-service Veteran's Administration hospital and in 2014 Ayotte worked with Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen on an amendment that allows the state's veterans to access private health care.
More recently, Ayotte said she's been hearing about the state's heroin epidemic nearly everywhere she goes, whether on official events or just going through the checkout at the grocery store.
"I've had a lot of families coming up to me saying that they lost a granddaughter, or a daughter or a son," she said. "That keeps me very motivated to get work done."
Her record on guns, including her vote against a bill to expand background checks after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, could be a target of attacks against her. Democrats are also likely to portray her as anti-women by highlighting her opposition to federal funding for Planned Parenthood and to mandatory paid sick leave.
Ayotte is bracing for a bruising campaign that her supporters say she's well prepared to handle.
"She's been delivering New Hampshire common sense to Washington," Gregg said. "I think we're lucky to have people like Kelly being willing to get into government."