Here’s what Donald Trump had to say this week about Senator Kelly Ayotte, his fellow Republican who is facing a battle for reelection: He’s more popular than she is in New Hampshire — a state which, he suggests, she no longer deserves to represent.
“I know she’s given me no support, zero support, and yet I’m leading her in the polls,” Trump told the Washington Post — incorrectly. “And I’m doing very well in New Hampshire. We need loyal people in this country. We need fighters in this country. We don’t need weak people. We have enough of them.”
Ayotte, who has twice denounced Trump’s inflammatory comments about veterans, is nonetheless still playing the good soldier. A day after Trump jabbed at her, musing, “Are these people that should be representing us?” she won’t disavow him.
Though Ayotte has been careful to say she isn’t “endorsing” Trump, her campaign on Wednesday said she will still “support the nominee.’’ But what does she have to gain by continuing to support him when he doesn’t support her?
Ayotte would not address the question with the Globe, instead issuing a statement through a spokeswoman.
“Kelly has a strong record as an independent voice who delivers results for New Hampshire, and that’s what our campaign is focused on,” said Ayotte spokeswoman Liz Johnson.
Democrats trying to link Ayotte to the increasingly controversial Trump are goading her to take a stronger stand against him. The Democrat who is challenging her for reelection to the Senate, Governor Maggie Hassan, charged that the senator’s continued support of Trump “tells Granite Staters all they need to know about Ayotte’s lack of political courage.”
But political analysts say her silence may be golden. In an election year in which Trump has dominated virtually all discourse, he just did what she’s been delicately trying to do for months: put distance between the two of them.
“He did her a favor the other day by bringing her name up,” said Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College. “She’s being tied to him in every possible way by the Democrats here in New Hampshire, and he came out and separated himself from her.”
Despite Trump’s claims that he’s doing better than Ayotte in her own state, polls show Ayotte and Hassan roughly neck-and-neck.
In the presidential race, Democrat Hillary Clinton is leading Trump 43 percent to 39 percent, according to an average of recent New Hampshire polling data from Real Clear Politics.
But in a fight this tight between Ayotte and Hassan, each woman will rely on strong institutional support from her respective party, said Andrew E. Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
And Ayotte can’t risk alienating her party by dismissing its nominee — or the 35 percent of GOP voters who supported him in the state’s Republican presidential primary.
“She needs not only financial support and organizational support from the party but she has to have the support of the voters in the party,” said Smith. “You can’t throw your own party leader overboard.”
Both of the major-party candidates for president are “wildly unpopular” in New Hampshire, Smith noted. Trump registers an unfavorable rating of 61 percent, while Clinton is viewed unfavorably by 58 percent, he said.
“It's not surprising that she is having to walk that tightrope between not wanting to be seen at Trump’s side, but not alienating herself from Republican voters who will find reasons to vote for Republican candidates up and down the ticket,” said Smith.
The contortions made by Ayotte and other Republicans running for reelection have been increasingly complicated. Ayotte has been trying to tread carefully around a Republican standard-bearer who is prone to dropping rhetorical bombs. Though Ayotte declined to “endorse” Trump, she said she would support the party’s nominee — a semantic distinction that left many bemused.
She also steered clear of the Republican National Convention. And she has issued careful denunciations of Trump comments she deemed “offensive,” beginning last summer when Trump suggested Senator John McCain was “not a war hero,” because he’d been captured and held as a prisoner of war. In June, Ayotte criticized Trump’s assertion that a judge of Mexican heritage was biased against him.
This week, Ayotte, whose husband is a military veteran, blasted Trump for his critical reaction to the parents of an American Muslim soldier who had died in service. (The late soldier’s parents appeared onstage at the Democratic National Convention and condemned Trump’s treatment of Muslims.)
“I am appalled that Donald Trump would disparage them and that he had the gall to compare his own sacrifices to those of a Gold Star family,” Ayotte said.
But since Ayotte didn’t withdraw her support for Trump, she was slammed by her Democratic rival’s campaign.
“Ayotte’s decision to support Trump for president — and to continue to stand by him as he reinforces every day just how temperamentally unfit he is to serve as president — raises serious questions about her judgment,” Hassan said in a statement.
That same day, President Obama put the pressure on elected Republicans, asking how they can continue to support Trump while they issue “repeated denunciations” of his statements.
“If you are repeatedly having to say, in very strong terms, that what he has said is unacceptable, why are you still endorsing him?” Obama said. “There has to be a point in which you say, ‘This is not somebody I can support for president of the United States.’ ”
McCain also criticized Trump for his statements this week and House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke up for the family, but neither withdrew his support for Trump’s campaign.
Still, in the same interview with the Washington Post in which he was asked about Ayotte, Trump toyed with both McCain and Ryan, withholding endorsements in their own contested races for reelection.
“This is a tough spot for all of these Republicans,” said Smith, who noted they would typically follow former president Reagan’s 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.
“Democrats are the same way,” Smith said. “It’s very difficult for them to disavow somebody even if they don’t like them.”
Ayotte did not disavow Trump, even after his dismissive comments about her were publicized Tuesday night. Instead she took to Twitter to issue her defense.
“I call it like I see it,” Ayotte wrote in a Tweet. “And I’m always going to stand up for our military families and what’s best for the people of New Hampshire.”
Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.