She was difficult to miss. And perhaps that was the point.
Less than 24 hours after being sworn into office, New Hampshire’s newest Senator stood alongside six of the most powerful Senate Republicans as they faced the Washington, D.C., press corps for the first time this year.
“As the mother of two small children that joined me yesterday at the swearing-in ... I’m deeply concerned about the nearly $14 trillion debt that we have right now. That is going to be the focus of the coming year,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte said as the cameras clicked, her bright coral blazer flanked by six dark suits.
Not only was Ayotte the only woman at the front of the room, she was a quarter-century younger than the first two speakers — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.). The 42-year-old former state attorney general was also the only one born north of Kentucky.
Last week’s event was a coming-out party of sorts for the New Hampshire native, who some believe is the Senate’s only “true conservative” woman, or at least the one most in the Republican leadership’s good graces.
Get used to seeing her in the spotlight.
Ayotte is expected to become a weapon in the Grand Old Party’s push to become more female-friendly heading into the 2012 cycle. It’s no secret that female voters were critical to President Barack Obama’s success in 2008 and just as critical to the House Republican takeover in 2010.
“What Kelly brings to our caucus is the diversity of being a mother of two young children, the wife of a small-business man, she’s a woman and she’s from the Northeast,” Alexander told Roll Call after last week’s event. “For all those reasons, she brings more diversity to our party.”
Alexander, the third-most-powerful Senate Republican, added that Ayotte’s value extends beyond demographics. “We’re looking primarily to her brains and her ideas,” he said. “She’s proved herself as a tough prosecutor and the attorney general in New Hampshire, and she has her feet on the ground. She’s been quickly accepted here.”
But it’s worth noting that Ayotte was the only one of 13 Republican freshman Senators invited to attend last week’s high-profile event. And the previous week, even before she had been sworn in, she delivered the GOP’s first national radio address of the year.
“The GOP has not elected any new women to the Senate in recent election cycles, so they finally have an opportunity to showcase one. That’s what it is, though — showcasing,” said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University.
Ayotte was the only new woman elected to the Senate in 2010. She is one of five Republican women in the new Senate and the party’s first new female Senator since 2002. She is uniquely positioned relative to her female peers.