Wooing middle, New Hampshire senator risks losing the right

AP News
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Posted: Dec 13, 2015 12:42 PM
Wooing middle, New Hampshire senator risks losing the right

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — When Sen. Kelly Ayotte voted against banning suspected terrorists from buying guns then later used social media to tout her support for a similar ban, the muddled message angered some of Republican backers and led Democrats to peg her as a hypocrite.

The firestorm highlights the difficulty Ayotte will face as she squares off against popular Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan in purple New Hampshire, a key swing state that will host a marquee 2016 matchup seen as pivotal to which party will control the Senate. In a state where undeclared voters make up nearly half the electorate, Ayotte's got to walk a line: She has to win over those in the middle without prompting a primary from the right or simply causing conservative voters to stay home.

Her support for banning people on the "no fly list" from buying guns is the latest in a string of positions she's taken that tack toward the center. Others include her support for federal regulations to curb carbon emissions and her public battle with conservative hero Sen. Ted Cruz over a potential government shutdown. Aimed at appealing to independent voters, the positions often alienate her conservative base.

"I'm hearing a lot of people say they won't vote for her," said Bob Clegg, a former GOP state senator and president of Pro-Gun New Hampshire. "People are saying that Kelly Ayotte is not a good choice for the Republican party."

Ayotte rode the Tea Party wave into office in 2010 after narrowly defeating a more conservative candidate in a primary. She's sided with her party often, including supporting an end to federal funding for Planned Parenthood and blocking efforts to expand gun background checks after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The latter prompted widespread criticism across New Hampshire, underscoring Ayotte's tricky relationship with gun control and giving Democrats an issue to keep in front of voters.

"It's clear that she's more concerned with saving her political career than looking out for the interests of New Hampshire's families and small businesses," said Aaron Jacobs, Hassan's campaign spokesman.

But her harshest Republican critics aren't satisfied, either, citing her past support of an immigration overhaul bill and votes to raise the debt ceiling as evidence she's straying too far from party principles.

Ayotte's campaign rejects the idea that her votes are driven by political calculation.

"Kelly is focused on listening to and learning from folks at home and doing what's best for New Hampshire in the Senate," campaign manager Jon Kohan said. "She isn't afraid to lead where others won't and call it like she sees it."

And some GOP voters appreciate her willingness to break from the party.

"We've got to get away from this us versus them, Republican (versus) Democrat attitude," said Angelo Manni, a Manchester Republican.

In the 2014 election, undeclared voters made up 43 percent of registered New Hampshire voters. Ayotte and Hassan will spend the majority of the campaign fighting over that group. Linda Fowler, an emeritus professor of government at Dartmouth College, said those voters are more likely to be female, fiscally conservative and more socially liberal.

"(Ayotte) can't win the election if she loses those people," Fowler said.

Her support for the Clean Power Plan is a prime example of a position that irritates some Republicans but will play favorably with many New Hampshire voters, Fowler said. The state's participation in a regional cap-and-trade program already puts it on track to meet the required emissions cuts, something Ayotte cited when she announced her support.

The vote drew sharp rebuke from the Koch brothers-backed group Americans for Prosperity and put another check against Ayotte for conservative voters, though her campaign downplays the idea that she has problems with the party's base.

"Kelly's support among the Republican grassroots runs deep, and any suggestion to the contrary is obviously false," said Steve Merrill, a former governor and chairman of Ayotte's campaign. "She continues to deliver results for our state, and is a strong and capable voice for our party."

Not all New Hampshire Republicans agree. Conservative activist Andrew Hemingway, who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2014, said the rise of candidates like Donald Trump is evidence that voters are fed up. Ayotte, for her part, has spoken out against Trump's most recent proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the country but hasn't directly criticized his candidacy — another move in the complicated dance Ayotte must continue as she seeks to build a coalition broad enough to keep her job.

"Kelly Ayotte takes the conservative base in New Hampshire for granted," Hemingway said. "She just assumes 'Oh, they have to vote for me.'"