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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.
The Republican leadership has long clashed on policy with the moderate Maine GOP Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. GOP leadership’s decision to oppose Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s successful write-in bid after she lost the primary has soured the party’s relationship with Alaska’s senior Senator. And uncertainty surrounding Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s 2012 re-election bid, not to mention her 17 years of service, prevent Senate Republicans from using her as a fresh tool to help woo female voters.
Republican pollster Gene Ulm, a principal at Public Opinion Strategies, describes Ayotte as “a very scarce breed” who could help the GOP build on improvements with women in the 2010 cycle.
“I think it’s a powerful benchmark that Republicans have gotten gains back from independents and women, who we’ve been struggling with certainly for the last decade,” he said. “It’s no shock that Republicans do well amongst white men, but it’s what they do amongst white women and married women that wins most races. Kelly Ayotte is living proof of that.”
“She’s just an exceptional candidate,” Ulm said. “I think she’ll become a shining star.”
Women certainly made the difference for Obama, who won that demographic by 13 points in 2008, according to exit polling. But women broke evenly for Republicans and Democrats in the 2010 midterms, a huge shift, Ulm said.
“It’s women who gave Republicans the majority in the House,” he said.
Ayotte’s office declined repeated interview requests for this article.
But National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn wasn’t shy about praising the newly elected Senator and what she brings to the caucus.
“I think she’s an outstanding face and voice and presence for the Republican Party, as a mom, as a spouse of a fellow in the Air National Guard and a small-business owner,” the Texas lawmaker told Roll Call. “I think you’ll be seeing a lot more of her going forward.”
American University’s Lawless was critical of Republicans parading Ayotte around to reporters, but she acknowledged that it’s all part of the political process, especially given the leadership’s relationship with the other four Republican women.
“I would find it hard to believe that he would have even mentioned the parental or marital status of a male member of Congress,” she said of Alexander’s comments, which were echoed by Cornyn.
Still, Ayotte seems to be embracing the role.
“For Republicans, the start of the 112th Congress on Wednesday will mark the opening of a new chapter for our country and our party,” she said in the GOP’s first address of the year. “As the mother of two children, I’m like parents across the country who worry that our nearly $14 trillion dollar debt threatens America’s economic future, and our children’s future. Republicans are ready to lead that fight.”