When Donald Trump wouldn’t back Paul D. Ryan in his upcoming primary, running mate Mike Pence played peacekeeper and endorsed the speaker.
But the Indiana governor wouldn’t offer the same support to Arizona Sen. John McCain and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte on Thursday, both of whom Trump criticized in a recent interview with the Washington Post .
A Pence aided later told Politico that his original comments had been misconstrued and that the vice presidential nominee backs all Republican incumbents in their primaries.
The latest sparring between the Trump/Pence ticket and down-ballot Republicans is yet another sign of GOP disunity going into a competitive general election.
But for a senator like Ayotte, who’s facing a tight re-election against popular Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, the disunity may actually boost her as she tried to prove her independence from the top of the ticket.
“I don’t know Kelly Ayotte. I know she’s given me no support, zero support,” Trump said in his interview with the Post, before suggesting Ayotte was a “weak” leader.
“Quite frankly, it’s a gift,” said Ryan Williams, spokesman for the New Hampshire Republican Party, after Trump’s Washington Post interview.
In her response to Trump, Ayotte never mentioned him by name, and never alluded to his personal attacks on her.
Instead, she defended her criticism of Trump for his attacks on the family of a dead American soldier.
“I call it like I see it, and I’m always going to stand up for our military families and what’s best for the people of New Hampshire,” Ayotte said.
Ayotte is one of the most vulnerable Republican senators up for re-election this year, and yet, she was among the first to say she would vote for Trump after Texas Sen. Ted Cruz dropped out of the race.
What little room she left herself — pledging to vote for Trump but not endorse him — has been widely panned by Democrats as a meaningless distinction.
But Ayotte has consistently denounced Trump’s more controversial comments. In response to Trump’s criticism of the family of a dead American soldier, she called out Trump directly.
“I am appalled that Donald Trump would disparage them and that he had the gall to compare his own sacrifices to those of a Gold Star family,” Ayotte said in a statement.
And when Trump said a Mexican-American judge was biased against him, she called on Trump to retract his comments.
After none of those incidents did Ayotte withdraw her support for Trump, and she’s made no move to do so this week either.
Democrats quickly pounced on the freshman senator for sticking by the nominee.
“Her continued support of Donald Trump tells Granite Staters all they need to know about Ayotte’s lack of political courage,” Hassan said in a statement Tuesday after Trump criticized her.
Ayotte’s campaign doesn’t see her primary challenge as a serious threat, so it’s not likely that she’s watching her right flank too closely before pivoting to a general election message.
So why is she sticking by Trump?
“She thinks that Hillary Clinton would be disastrous and having a Republican president who can make an appointment to the Supreme Court is a better option,” Williams said.
But as Republicans in the state point out, she had no qualms about calling on a member of her own delegation , Rep. Frank C. Guinta, to resign last year over FEC violations.
“She has an independent brand in New Hampshire,” Williams said.
The rare GOP senator up for re-election this year who has said he will not vote for Trump is Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk.
Trump has lashed out at Kirk, too, at his meeting with Senate Republicans in Washington, D.C., earlier this summer.
At least one Senate Republican and former sparring partner of Trump’s was in his good graces this week.
“I endorsed Marco. He endorsed me. Go for Marco!” Trump told a crowd in the Sunshine state Wednesday.
Rubio’s the favorite in his primary against millionaire Carlos Beruff, who entered the race before Rubio made his last-minute decision to run for re-election.