“It’s not like Passover, where the vot­ers say, ‘Oh, th­ese are the good Repub­li­cans that we’re meant to spare.’ They kill them all”

▶ Repub­li­cans need Sen­a­tor Kelly Ay­otte to keep her seat, no mat­ter who wins the nom­i­na­tion ▶ “It’s just easy to paint a pic­ture that she’s one of them, of that ex­treme right wing”

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Contents - - Josh Eidel­son

New Hamp­shirites take their role as the first vot­ers in any pres­i­den­tial pri­mary very, very se­ri­ously. At a party spon­sored by the state GOP to watch the Jan. 28 Repub­li­can de­bate, at­ten­dees marked the 100th an­niver­sary of New Hamp­shire’s pri­mary with a red, white, and blue sheet cake em­bla­zoned with the words “Cel­e­brat­ing Fitn” — twit­ter par­lance for “first in the na­tion.” Cam­paign vol­un­teers, party of­fi­cials, and politi­cians snacked on brie-and-rasp­berry phyllo tri­an­gles while lo­cal sur­ro­gates made pitches for their can­di­dates.

They also had their pick of free but­tons, signs, and bumper stickers for Kelly Ay­otte, the state’s first­term U.S. sen­a­tor, who is run­ning for re­elec­tion in Novem­ber. In 2010, amid a na­tional Repub­li­can wave, she beat her Demo­cratic op­po­nent by 23 points, even as New Hamp­shire re­elected Demo­crat John Lynch to the gov­er­nor’s man­sion. This year, Ay­otte, a fis­cal con­ser­va­tive who has reached across party lines to co­op­er­ate with Democrats, is cru­cial to the GOP’S hope of hold­ing on to its four-per­son Se­nate ma­jor­ity.

“I like her very much,” said Raul Cer­vantes, a reg­u­lar vol­un­teer for Repub­li­can cam­paigns who is sup­port­ing John Ka­sich. Cer­vantes, a Mex­i­can-born handy­man who won the evening’s tax-re­form-themed bingo game, had less kind words for Don­ald Trump: “That’s not the way to run the coun­try, as an an­gry per­son.”

Therein lies Ay­otte’s prob­lem. To win in Novem­ber, the ju­nior sen­a­tor will have to at­tract con­ser­va­tive, anti­estab­lish­ment Repub­li­cans to her cause while hold­ing on to mod­er­ates like Cer­vantes who are turned off by Trump and Ted Cruz, who won the Iowa cau­cus. “It’s not like Passover, where the vot­ers say, ‘Oh, th­ese are the good Repub­li­cans that we’re meant to spare,’ ” says Fer­gus Cullen, a for­mer state GOP chair­man from 2007 to 2008, who re­cently en­dorsed Ka­sich. “They kill them all.”

At least 9 of the 34 Se­nate seats up for elec­tion in Novem­ber are likely to be com­pet­i­tive. Six are held by Repub­li­cans in states Obama won in 2012, in­clud­ing Florida, Illinois, and New Hamp­shire, a once solidly red state that’s been trend­ing in­creas­ingly Demo­cratic. Ay­otte is ex­pected to face the state’s cur­rent Demo­cratic gov­er­nor, Mag­gie Has­san, who was re­elected in 2014 by five points. “There’s not much mar­gin for er­ror for ei­ther cam­paign,” says Andy Smith, di­rec­tor of the Univer­sity of New Hamp­shire’s Sur­vey Cen­ter.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, Has­san sup­port­ers see a Trump or Cruz nom­i­na­tion as a dream come true. “It’s just easy to paint a pic­ture that she’s one of them, of that ex­treme right wing of the Repub­li­can Party, which is tak­ing con­trol of the Repub­li­can Party,” says Has­san cam­paign trea­surer Kathy Sul­li­van, a for­mer state party chair. “We should be that lucky.”

When Ay­otte ran for Se­nate in 2010, she was a widely liked state at­tor­ney gen­eral who’d been ap­pointed by a Repub­li­can gov­er­nor and reap­pointed by a Demo­crat. She racked up en­dorse­ments from John Mccain and Sarah Palin. In of­fice, she’s joined most of her fel­low Repub­li­cans in vot­ing against a 2013 gun con­trol bill, against fund­ing Planned Par­ent­hood, and in fa­vor of phas­ing out Med­i­caid ex­pan­sion un­der the Af­ford­able Care Act. But she’s sided with Democrats in sup­port­ing com­pre­hen­sive im­mi­gra­tion re­form and the En­vi­ron­men­tal

Pro­tec­tion Agency’s Clean

Power Plan. Ay­otte has also been crit­i­cal of her col­league Cruz, blast­ing him for his role in shut­ting down the fed­eral govern­ment in 2013. “She’s sort of in the Mccain mold,” says Steve Duprey, Ay­otte’s fi­nance chair. “She does what she thinks is right and will tell her own party to go pound sand when they’re wrong.”

That hasn’t en­deared her to some of her party’s vot­ers. In­side the tur­reted Nashua ho­tel where Trump hosted a rally on Jan. 29, Colleen King con­trasted Ay­otte’s vote for im­mi­gra­tion re­form with Trump’s an­ti­im­mi­grant stance. “His whole po­si­tion is what is the best for Amer­ica, to get Amer­ica back to not be­ing the sugar daddy for the world,” said King, a 60-year- old wear­ing a red-and-white MAKE AMER­ICA GREAT AGAIN scarf. “I think she’s like a piece of wet spaghetti. She flip-flops.”

Ay­otte has also alien­ated some of her Repub­li­can col­leagues in the state. Af­ter Repub­li­cans re­took the New Hamp­shire House in 2014, Ay­otte op­posed ex- speaker Bill O’brien’s bid to re­claim his old post. O’brien, who is now Cruz’s New Hamp­shire cam­paign co- chair, or­ga­nized a meet­ing in Novem­ber aimed at find­ing some­one to chal­lenge Ay­otte in the Repub­li­can pri­mary. No one has emerged, but the fil­ing dead­line for the race isn’t un­til June. “Kelly was given to us by the Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee,” says Karen Mcrae, an 11-term for­mer state rep­re­sen­ta­tive. “She doesn’t rep­re­sent New Hamp­shire.”

Ay­otte’s cam­paign dis­agrees. “In stark con­trast to Has­san, Kelly has held more than 50 town halls since tak­ing of­fice to hear di­rectly from vot­ers and bring their ideas and con­cerns to the Se­nate,” says her cam­paign man­ager, Jon Ko­han. “Re­gard­less of how the pres­i­den­tial race plays out, our cam­paign is fo­cused on draw­ing a con­trast be­tween Kelly’s record of de­liv­er­ing re­sults for New Hamp­shire and Gov­er­nor Has­san’s fail­ure to lead or even take a stand on the is­sues that mat­ter most.”

New Hamp­shire has oc­ca­sion­ally voted split tick­ets: In 2000, the state went for Repub­li­can Ge­orge W. Bush in the pres­i­den­tial race but re­elected Demo­crat Jeanne Sha­heen as gov­er­nor. (Sha­heen is now New Hamp­shire’s se­nior U.S. sen­a­tor.) Ay­otte al­lies say vot­ers know her as a prob­lem solver who pri­or­i­tizes Gran­ite State is­sues such as heroin treat­ment fund­ing and as some­one who’s a ubiq­ui­tous pres­ence around the state. “If it was any­body else, I would say they didn’t have a chance,” says Andy Crews, a for­mer chair of the Greater Manch­ester Cham­ber of Com­merce

and the state auto deal­ers as­so­ci­a­tion. “She is the realest, most au­then­tic per­son that I’ve met in pol­i­tics—there is no ques­tion about that—and I think those de­posits will pay off, be­cause they were au­then­tic.”

The bot­tom line Pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics may get in the way of New Hamp­shire Repub­li­can Sen­a­tor Kelly Ay­otte’s re­elec­tion ef­fort.

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