Senate Republicans view New Hampshire frontrunner Kelly Ayotte as a key political asset as the GOP looks to make inroads with female voters and independents.
Ayotte has the backing of former vice presidential candidate and tea party doyenne Sarah Palin, yet aides note that she has maintained a sense of moderate appeal in ways that other conservatives, such as Nevada’s Sharron Angle and Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, have not.
A 42-year-old mother of two and wife of an Iraq War veteran, Ayotte’s personal background is attractive to Senate GOP leaders who want a fresh face to help boost their message strategy next year.
“The addition of a Republican woman from New England who’s young, who’s a mom,” one senior GOP aide said, “all of these things broaden the Republican party’s appeal and say to different segments of the population, ‘This party has folks in it that are just like you.’”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) previously carried that role for Republicans, and she did so more visibly after becoming Conference vice chairwoman in 2009. But the GOP’s lone female leader resigned her post after losing her party’s primary to Joe Miller in August and deciding to pursue a write-in campaign for the general election. While some Republicans suggested Murkowski be replaced by another female Senator, the caucus elected Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.) to the leadership job instead.
Neither of Maine’s GOP Senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, have leadership aspirations, and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas) already had her time in elected leadership, first as Conference vice chairwoman in 2001 and later as Republican Policy Committee chairwoman in 2007. Senate Republicans currently have no female legislators in their leadership ranks, while Democrats have several, including Conference Secretary Patty Murray (Wash.) and Steering and Outreach Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (Mich.).
This election cycle, in which Democrats are expected to lose at least one of their female Members, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), and the GOP is running four female candidates, Republicans consider Ayotte to have great potential as the symbol of a new trend. The fact that she hails from New Hampshire, a state crucial in presidential politics, makes her even more attractive as a GOP spokeswoman in the Senate.
“Having a younger, dynamic female Senator in New Hampshire, I’m sure her name ID will go up as we go into that presidential cycle because there are going to be so many national names going into the state that will play into it as well,” one campaign operative said.
Indeed, nearly the entire Republican field of possible 2012 presidential contenders has come out to support Ayotte. In addition to Palin, former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) visited the Granite State twice for Ayotte. Sens. John Thune (S.D.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.) held a fundraiser for her in New York this month, and she has been endorsed by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
Retiring Sen. Judd Gregg (R) regularly heaps praise on the candidate during weekly policy lunches with his Senate colleagues, and aides said her admirers include Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), who attended a Washington, D.C., fundraiser hosted by Gregg last month for Ayotte and other New Hampshire candidates.
Ayotte has kept mum on leadership aspirations or what kind of role she might fill in broader Republican circles. Ayotte spokesman Jeff Grappone would only say, “Kelly’s entire focus right now is on beating [Rep.] Paul Hodes.”
“In the Senate, she will get to work cutting spending, cutting taxes and getting our economy back on track,” Grappone added.
Republicans predict that the fiscally conservative Ayotte could be a strong voice on financial matters, a mantle often carried in the chamber by Gregg. And while it appears unlikely any leadership spots will be available early next year, Republican aides still maintained that McConnell and others will find high-profile opportunities for Ayotte.
“She will be a leading Republican woman voice in the Senate,” one GOP staffer said.
Yet Democrats are quick to point out Ayotte’s conservative views against abortion rights and her desire to repeal the health care reform law, views that they assert are harmful to women votes.
“This election isn’t about sending people to Washington to help the GOP rebrand itself. It’s about sending people there who know what it means to stand up and fight for women of this country,” said Valerie Martin, Hodes’ campaign manager. “Female voters respond to candidates who stand up for the things they believe in, and Kelly Ayotte’s record in that regard is unimpressive and uninspiring.”
Ayotte leads Hodes among likely female voters 43 percent to 38 percent, according to a University of New Hampshire poll conducted Oct. 7 -12. She was on par with him among young voters, a bloc that typically leans Democratic, and she held a 15-point advantage overall against Hodes.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, speaks with reporters in the Capitol after a speech on the Senate floor that accused the CIA of searching computers set up for Congressional staff for their research of interrogation programs.