Waiting for Ayotte: What sort of Republican will she be?
By Mike Pride Monitor columnist
August 02, 2009 - 12:00 am
When Kelly Ayotte announced that she was stepping down to run for U.S. Senate, the burning question in New Hampshire politics became: What kind of Republican will she be? Will she be a right-winger, pro-life, anti-gay and partisan to the max? Or will she appeal to the center with provocative ideas about the economy, the war and foreign affairs?
The question is important not just for Ayotte and the voters. It is also important for the future of the Republican Party.
The Republicans, who dominated this state until a decade ago, are dead on their feet. Their positions on social issues make for heavy baggage in politics today, especially with so many young voters entering the electorate. These voters tend to be free of the prejudices of the past, a trend that will only accelerate in years to come.
The GOP can recycle a few names from its glory days, but the party needs fresh faces and forward thinking. It needs to appeal to the center, where elections are now decided.
That is why Ayotte's entry could be momentous. It is also why she could use an easy ride, or no opposition at all, in a Republican primary. Primary voters tend to be more extreme than the general electorate, forcing candidates to take far-right or far-left positions just to win nomination. If Ayotte can avoid this, she will be a more elusive target for the Democratic nominee.
In her bid for the Senate, Ayotte begins with advantages beyond her record as attorney general. One is that the king of New Hampshire Republicans sits in the seat she wants to hold for the GOP. Sen. Judd Gregg has won every election he's entered for more than 30 years. Surely he wants to leave his Senate seat in Republican hands.
Gregg is also a role model for Ayotte. By the end of the George W. Bush presidency, congressional Republicans looked just as spendthrift and beholden to special interests as Democrats ever did. Not Gregg. A leading expert on the federal budget, he stuck to his fiscal conservative principles. Although he tilted too much toward business to qualify as a full-fledged environmentalist, he has been a leader in supporting New Hampshire's strong conservation ethic. On these issues, Ayotte could do no better than to follow Gregg's path.
Ayotte's record as attorney general may lead some to see her as an ideologue. After all, she took the parental notification issue to the U.S. Supreme Court and briefly joined a national anti-gay-marriage effort. But an attorney general is not an entirely independent agent. She is beholden to the governors, legislators and the public she serves. Attributing those positions to her is a bit like calling David Souter a religious zealot because, as state attorney general, he sent his minions to the U.S. Supreme Court to defend lowering the American flag to half-staff on Good Friday.
Perhaps Ayotte will be a pleasant surprise on social issues. Failing that, there is ample precedent for her to soft-pedal them. Most recent Republican members of Congress from New Hampshire have done so.
Nationally, Ayotte's party needs desperately to shed its Bush-era image as the anti-science, anti-evolution party. More than that, it must escape its reputation as the party of trickle-down economics - the idea that if you legislate to fatten the bankrolls of the wealthiest 2 percent of the population, everyone will eventually be better off.
The crucial questions for Ayotte in 2010 will be on the economy and defense. Unemployment is likely to remain high. How would electing her to the Senate help the unemployed find jobs? The national debt continues its dizzying rise. What would Ayotte do to check it? The United States seems committed to war in Afghanistan. What is the mission there, and under what circumstances might we declare victory and bring the troops home?
Next year, voters will be judging how the Obama administration and its Democratic congressional majority did in their first two years. They will want to know why they would be better off sending a senator to Washington to challenge Obama's leadership and direction than sending a senator to support him.
Ayotte's best shot is to avoid extremism on social issues and to come across as a serious thinker about the economy and defense. The Republican Party long drew its core strength from these subjects, and they will be as important as ever in 2010.
It would be a bonus if Ayotte could remain true to herself. Politicians always do better when they believe what they're saying, even to the point of being ornery.
The attorney general's job has given Ayotte both a credential as a law-and-order Republican and a shelter from political posturing. Politically, she is almost a blank slate. She has the potential to make a great first impression on voters. Whatever happens in the long run, it would be a good thing for the state's lopsided political scene if she did.