Trump effect threatens to tip Senate balance in key race
Campaign 2016 | Kelly Ayotte’s New Hampshire contest could give Democrats a legislative advantage, especially if Hillary Clinton claims the White House
by J.C. Derrick
Posted 9/09/16, 11:52 am
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., did not hide her displeasure after she rushed back to the U.S. Capitol during a lame-duck session of Congress in December 2014. Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, had raised a constitutional point of order they said was aimed at stopping President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration. Once the measure failed, the Senate worked through a weekend to confirm two dozen Obama appointments.
“I think this is ridiculous,” Ayotte told Politico, noting she had to cancel plans to attend The Nutcracker with her daughter.
Ayotte’s image as both a mom and lawmaker willing to criticize her own party is a hallmark of her first term in the U.S. Senate. Her reputation plays well at home in New Hampshire, where 43 percent of the 2012 electorate identified as independent. But GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has been an unwelcome recurring theme in Ayotte’s quest to win a second term.
“I call it like I see it,” Ayotte said in a statement last month after she defended the family of a slain Muslim-American soldier whom Trump criticized. “I’m always going to stand up for our military families and what’s best for the people of New Hampshire.”
While Ayotte consistently polls ahead of the GOP nominee, she’s locked in one of the tightest reelection battles in the country—one that could determine control of the Senate.
Ayotte, 48, is a Catholic, the mother of two young children, and a life-long New Hampshire resident. She served as the state attorney general from 2004 to 2009 and successfully argued against Planned Parenthood over a parental notification law at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Since arriving in the Senate, Ayotte has maintained a strong pro-life voting record, voting to defund Planned Parenthood and supporting protections for unborn children after 20 weeks. She’s called for a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution and is generally a hawk on foreign policy issues.
She proudly touts her bipartisan record, but it has at times become a liability with her Republican base. Immigration hardliners—including her primary opponent, Jim Rubens—criticized her for supporting the 2013 immigration reform package that passed the U.S. Senate and died in the House.
The conservative group Heritage Action gives Ayotte a score of 27 percent based on 40 votes during the 114th Congress.
But Ayotte remains critical for the party, not only to retain control of the Senate but to build much-needed diversity. Almost six years after her election, Ayotte remains one of the youngest members of the Senate. She’s been called one of the most influential Republican women in the country and even mentioned as a future presidential candidate.
Ayotte won her first race with 60 percent of the vote, but 2010 was a Republican wave election. This time she’s in a dead heat with a more formidable opponent, Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, whose recent polling gains reflect a national trend. As of this week, Democrats hold modest but consistent leads in New Hampshire, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—enough to give them 51 seats and control of the Senate, if the party holds its existing seats.
Although Trump won the GOP primary in New Hampshire last February, Democrat Hillary Clinton holds about an 8-point advantage over him in both head-to-head surveys and four-way polling that includes the Libertarian and Green Party candidates.
Ayotte maintains she will vote for Trump but not endorse him—and reserves the right to change her mind. She skipped the Republican National Convention in July, electing to campaign at home and hopefully avoid controversy.
But Trump hasn’t helped matters: Last month, during an interview with The Washington Post, the mogul attacked Ayotte for being willing to criticize him.
Maintaining daylight between herself and Trump may provide the key to victory—but a similar strategy failed Democrats just two years ago, when they were running from an unpopular president. Obama’s approval numbers have since recovered, and voter discontent with Clinton has so far not dipped as low as disapproval of Trump.
Political analysts at the University of Virginia noted Ayotte is in a similar position as Republican Sen. Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania: “By far the most important factor in these races is Trump: He needs to start doing better in both places or he’s going to drag down Ayotte and Toomey.”