When the Malaysian jetliner went down over eastern Ukraine, New Hampshire’s junior senator happened to be meeting with Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States. Within hours, she took to the Senate floor to call for “serious consequences” if Russia or its agents were found to be responsible. That night on Fox News, she alleged that the missile fired at the plane had Russian fingerprints all over it.
Almost four years into her term, after barely beating back a primary challenger, US Senator Kelly Ayotte is everywhere, often in the right place at the right time to make a splash.
She’s been at the center of Washington’s biggest debates, including immigration and gun control. She was among the sharpest critics of President Obama’s response to the attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi. She’s flown to Ukraine twice this year, in May to observe the nation’s presidential election and in March to lead a congressional delegation that also visited Afghanistan and Israel. The Texas GOP honored her in June as a courageous Republican woman, and she was on a New Hampshire hilltop last month to officiate the wedding of former senator Scott Brown’s daughter.
Throughout, she has navigated a careful path between her party’s mainstream and its right wing. She spoke in April at a summit cosponsored by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, an organization started by the billionaire David Koch that has helped fund Tea Party-backed candidates. Six months earlier, she lambasted Tea Party favorite Senator Ted Cruz of Texas at a private luncheon for his role in shutting down the government, according to an account in The New York Times.
As she was four years ago, the 46-year-old is regularly included in the long list of potential vice presidential nominees, a position to which supporters say she would bring electoral muscle as a conservative woman with national security credentials and a biography steeped in the appeal of normal: a mother of two who lives in her hometown with her husband, a landscaper who flew combat missions during the Iraq War.
“Sarah Palin, but with credentials,” the Daily Beast dubbed her.
“I haven’t seen anyone go so far so fast,” said Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who has worked with Ayotte on national security issues along with his longtime ally Senator John McCain. Her appearances with the men have prompted some to name Ayotte a member of the “three amigos” — the chummy fraternity that once included former senator Joe Lieberman.
Speculation about Ayotte’s future tends to focus on her chances in the veepstakes. But should a Republican win the White House in 2016, there are Cabinet posts that could await, and more broadly there is the great hope that some are attaching to her — that she will help revive her party’s fortunes among women voters.
Ayotte is reluctant to publicly game out her trajectory. “I’m just trying as a senator to do the best job I can for the people of New Hampshire,” she said in a phone interview.
It’s a line that her predecessor Judd Gregg might have used, imbued with a sense of quiet power-brokering. In fact, Ayotte’s operating manual looks more that of another predecessor, Warren Rudman, the pugnacious former prosecutor who loomed large in many of his era’s biggest stories, including the Iran-Contra affair and deficit reduction.
Ayotte has had struggles. She faced a backlash in New Hampshire when she was a key vote against a bipartisan plan to expand the national gun background-check program. At town hall meetings, she encountered praise but also fierce criticism, including pointed questions from the daughter of the school principal killed in the Newtown, Conn., shootings. Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s gun control group released advertising criticizing her vote. The NRA’s state chapter countered with ads supporting her. But not before her favorability rating dipped 9 percentage points, to 41 percent.
Democrats dubbed the episode “NRAyotte.”
Still a year later, a WMUR/University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll shows her favorability rating has rebounded. In the July poll, 50 percent of respondents viewed her favorably.
“People seem to be able to cut you slack issue by issue as long as show you are reasonable and going about it in a way that shows you have reflected on it,” said Tom Rath, a Republican strategist in New Hampshire.
Kathy Sullivan, a Democratic strategist in the state, said Ayotte’s resurrected poll numbers reflect an electorate distracted by the slate of politicians running for office, including former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown against incumbent Senator Jeanne Shaheen, whose poll numbers, Sullivan noted, are higher than Ayotte’s.
“She’s not the story now,” Sullivan said.
Ayotte works hard for that not to be the case, wasting little time forging a national profile — a feat for a new legislator in today’s politically gridlocked Congress, and particularly for someone with no previous electoral experience.
She routinely dives into the story of the moment, often taking to the airwaves, with performances that seem to be gaining strength. Supporters say her eagerness to tackle a wide range of issues reflects a willingness to do her homework and confidence to express her views.
“From the very start, she had an impact. She didn’t just sit back. She spoke out, and I think that’s admirable,” said Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican Ayotte joined in helping to broker an end to the government shutdown in 2013.
By any measure, Ayotte maintains a rigorous schedule. She flies to Washington on Mondays and returns to New Hampshire on Thursdays, staying in touch with her kids via Skype. While she’s away, her husband assumes parental duties, which include soccer, lacrosse, and basketball practice for their daughter and baseball and soccer practice for their son. She notes that her husband doesn’t step aside when she returns. “For us, it’s a team.”
Ayotte said she used to hear questions about how she would handle children and a Senate seat when she was campaigning. But since then, she said, “people have accepted it.”
In fact, being a woman has been a strong suit politically for Ayotte. In 2010, Sarah Palin, in her endorsement, named Ayotte a Granite State “mama grizzly.” Four years later, Republican colleagues say Ayotte is a counterweight to the image of Republicans as men carrying binders full of women — Mitt Romney’s clumsy 2012 description of his search for female Cabinet members when he was governor of Massachusetts.
“She’s a good spokesperson for the Republican Party — a party where we need to have more women voices,” Graham said.
Democrats question how deep her support among women will run when she’s up for reelection in 2016 with her recent defense of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, which ruled that closely held companies can invoke religious objections to avoid covering contraception in workers’ health plans.
“Women don’t vote for someone just because they’re a woman,” Sullivan said. “We vote on issues important to us.”
Ayotte’s staff is quick to point to her collaboration with Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, a former prosecutor like Ayotte, overhauling the handling of sexual assaults in the military. Seventeen of the Senate’s 20 female senators also backed another measure sponsored by Senator Kirstin Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, which would have taken prosecution of sex crimes in the military out of the chain of command.
In the end, the Gillibrand measure went down in the Senate; McCaskill’s passed.
Ayotte was on the side of victory.
“I think she’s flat wrong on a bunch of things,” said McCaskill. But “if she’s with you, she’s a good person to have in your corner.”