A Lot Yet to Be Revealed About Ayotte
Aug. 4, 2009
By Shira Toeplitz
Roll Call Staff
While national Republicans are quickly falling in line behind former New Hampshire Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, several local party activists said they are still unsure what kind of candidate she will be in the Granite State’s 2010 Senate race.
Although most Republicans only had kind words to say about the telegenic Ayotte, even her supporters had a hard time describing her political leanings. Meanwhile, several other Republicans are considering running for the Senate and could force a divisive primary that wouldn’t be decided until just a few months before the winner will face the likely Democratic nominee, Rep. Paul Hodes.
Ayotte supporter and former state Sen. Bob Clegg (R) worked regularly with her when they were in office, but he was at a loss when asked to pinpoint where he thought she would fall on the political spectrum.
“Would I call her a Republican or Democrat? I wouldn’t call her either,” Clegg said. “I think she’s one of the most thoughtful people on the political spectrum.”
But, Clegg added, people will find out quickly how she feels because of her straightforward personality and tendency to answer questions in a direct manner.
Ayotte was appointed attorney general by former Gov. Craig Benson (R) and was re-appointed to her nonpartisan office by Gov. John Lynch (D). But because she has never run for political office before, her natural campaign skills are an unknown commodity even within Republican circles.
One GOP operative familiar with Ayotte recently saw her speak at a Republican women’s luncheon and commented that she did “all right.”
“She certainly didn’t turn people off and make them run away,” said the operative. “I think a lot of people looked at it and said, ‘OK, it’s a good starting point. Let’s see what comes next.’”
The operative pointed out that Ayotte has a “personable” style that will likely be an asset in retail politicking — a requisite campaign activity for candidates in New Hampshire.
“I think that would be the best venue for her at this point,” said the operative.
Another neutral Republican operative in New Hampshire — who also declined to speak on the record — said that many people think Ayotte is not a good public speaker, plus her fundraising prowess is uncertain.
“Her fundraising capacity is a complete unknown because she hasn’t been working for any charities,” said the operative. “I don’t know if she’s ever gotten on the phone and asked for money from anyone before.”
Ayotte’s fundraising will no doubt be aided by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which has already planned a September fundraiser for her headlined by Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.). Ayotte also appears to have the backing of retiring Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and his organization.
Above all, most New Hampshire activists know Ayotte as a friend of the state’s law enforcement community. During her tenure as attorney general, Ayotte oversaw the successful prosecution of a capital murder case that included the death of a Manchester police officer.
But several interviews with local law enforcement officials who know Ayotte delivered little insight into her political positions, although the officials only had positive things to say about her.
Bedford Chief of Police David Bailey said he considers Ayotte to be “one of our best friends in law enforcement.” He said that while her personal politics did not come up in their dealings, he gathered that she was a moderate Republican “just from things she said.”
“She’s a Republican,” Bailey said. “I would say, I wouldn’t consider her ultra-right. I would consider her somewhere in the middle.”
David Dubois, the president of the state Association of Chiefs of Police, said that other than being a Republican, he only knows Ayotte as a strong advocate of the death penalty and opponent of expanding gambling.
Joel Maiola, a former chief of staff to Gregg and an Ayotte supporter, said volunteer firefighters, police officers and emergency medical teams would be at “the top of the list” as Ayotte looks to build a grass-roots organization in the state. After all, Maiola said, no one is more popular in small towns across New Hampshire than these forces.
“Along with your traditional Republican support, she has the ability to mobilize the police, fire and EMT volunteers across the state, which makes for a very wide and deep political organization — one like you’ve never seen before,” he said.
Ayotte campaign manager Brooks Kochvar said Ayotte was not yet giving interviews but that she would be traveling the state to meet with voters soon.
“We’re proceeding with the exploratory committee, beginning to raise money and garner and gauge support around the state,” Kochvar said.
In the meantime, several other candidates continue to look at the race — including one former statewide GOP nominee.
New Hampshire’s Republican Party chairman, former Gov. John Sununu, said he has talked to at least three other candidates who have expressed interest in the race.
“I think there is a possibility of a primary and we’ve been encouraging all the potential candidates to make sure it’s a positive primary, talking positive about themselves,” Sununu said.
Sununu allowed that that he only knows Ayotte in her capacity as attorney general, a position she held until stepping down recently, and not as a candidate for other office. Sununu said he knows former gubernatorial nominee Ovide Lamontagne, one of the other potential candidates eyeing the race, better because he provides legal advice to the GOP state committee.
“I’ve talked to Ovide many times in the last few months,” Sununu said.
Lamontagne defeated a sitting Member of Congress in 1996 to win the GOP gubernatorial nomination, but ultimately lost to now-Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D). In the primary, Lamontagne ran to the right of then-Rep. Bill Zeliff (R) on issues such as abortion.
“He is the typical movement social conservative,” said a New Hampshire GOP operative. “He does have a record.”
Lamontagne’s senior adviser, Jim Merrill, said he will decide what he wants to do about the race by the end of the year — about nine months before the GOP primary in 2010.
“We know where Ovide is on the issues,” Merrill said. “We’ll find out in a few weeks when Kelly begins campaigning around the state.”
And in addition to Lamontagne, there are other candidates looking at running.
Republican National Committeeman Sean Mahoney was coy when asked about his interest in the Senate race. Mahoney, who lost the GOP primary in the 1st district in 2002, has been encouraged to run and has told local activists that he’s considering it.
“Right now, I’m focused on rebuilding the party and making sure we retain the Republican Senate seat and restore both the Congressional seats,” Mahoney said.
Local Republicans also continue to float former Rep. Charlie Bass’ (R) name as a possible candidate. Bass, who did not return a call for comment, has not contacted the NRSC about a bid, and other local Republicans insist if he runs for anything it will be for his former House seat, which Hodes is vacating.