For months, Republican US Senator Kelly Ayotte walked a fine line with Donald J. Trump, saying during her reelection campaign in New Hampshire that she’d vote to make the businessman president but wouldn’t endorse him.
But after a 2005 recording was made public Friday in which Trump spoke in vulgar terms about women and bragged he could get away with “anything” because of his fame, Ayotte abandoned her tepid backing of the GOP candidate and declared she would cast a write-in vote for his running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence.
“I’m a mom and an American first, and I cannot and will not support a candidate for president who brags about degrading and assaulting women,” Ayotte said Saturday in a statement released by her campaign.
Her rival, Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan, seized upon Ayotte’s reversal, denouncing the move as a “transparent, craven attempt at political self-preservation.”
“Kelly Ayotte today simply reinforced that everything she does is based on cold, political calculations about what is in her personal best interest,” Hassan said in a statement issued by her campaign. “Her words are far too little and far too late.”
The statement blasted Ayotte for previously backing Trump despite remarks in which he demeaned women, minorities, people with disabilities, and a Gold Star family.
The campaign also posted messages to Twitter that referred to Ayotte as “Craven Kelly” and highlighted insults Trump directed at Fox News host Megyn Kelly and former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, whom he called “Miss Piggy.”
A Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll last week showed Ayotte had a small lead over Hassan, 47 percent to 41 percent. The outcome of the battle could determine control of the Senate.
Ayotte was not alone in dropping her support for Trump after he was caught boasting that he tried to have sex with a married woman. The remarks were captured on a microphone while Trump was speaking with television host Billy Bush during a taping of the show “Access Hollywood.”
Some GOP leaders, including South Dakota Senator John Thune, the third-ranking Senate Republican, and Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho called on him to quit the race, and Pence issued a statement saying he could not condone or defend Trump’s remarks.
Trump apologized but rejected calls for him to quit, writing on Twitter: “I WILL NEVER DROP OUT OF THE RACE.”
His campaign did not respond to a request for comment on Ayotte’s decision.
Ayotte herself was the subject of Trump’s ire over the summer. In August, Trump said he was more popular than she is in New Hampshire and suggested she no longer deserved to represent the state. A few days later, Trump reversed course and endorsed her.
Trump will test just how much support he has in New Hampshire this week. Hours after Ayotte said she would not vote for him, Trump announced he will hold a rally at car dealership in Portsmouth on Saturday. He plans to follow that with another rally in Bangor, Maine.
Ayotte’s announcement that she would vote for Pence followed her backtracking last week from her own comments about Trump. During a debate Monday with Hassan, Ayotte said Trump was “absolutely” a role model for children. Hours later, she reversed herself and said she had misspoke.
At the Mall at Rockingham Park in Salem, voter Mike Kelley, 51, said Ayotte’s initial support for Trump was more surprising than her move to vote for Pence.
“She did the right thing standing up,” said Kelley, a Republican from Londonderry. “Enough is enough.”
Political observers said Ayotte’s decision to rescind her support of Trump likely wouldn’t change the dynamics of the race with Hassan.
Voter turnout, they said, will likely determine the outcome, and that’s being driven by the candidates at the top of the ticket: Trump and his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
“Both parties have problems with the top of their tickets,” said Andy Smith, a political science professor and director of the Survey Center at the University of New Hampshire.
Wayne Lesperance, a political science professor at New England College in Henniker, N.H., said Trump supporters likely won’t abandon Ayotte because they want to keep Republicans in control of the Senate.
“They really don’t have another person to vote for other than Senator Ayotte,” he said.
Jennifer Horn, who leads the New Hampshire Republican Party, said she understood and respected Ayotte’s decision but did not instruct other Republicans to abandon Trump or lend their support.
“I have clearly expressed my own concerns about Mr. Trump’s qualifications and statements in the past, but I respect that he was nominated by the people in a fair and open process,” Horn said in a statement. “There will be no repercussions from the party directed at those who choose not to support Donald Trump.”