Running Toward the Middle, Ayotte Preaches Bipartisanship But Picks Her Spots

Nov 2, 2016

 

Listen to Kelly Ayotte on the campaign trail these days, and at times her message can sound like a hymn — to bipartisanship.

“I know we are not going to get anything done if we don’t find common ground. And I will look like a bridge builder," Ayotte says. "And I have good relationships and respect within my own party. But I have also built relationships across the aisle that I think will be important."

That’s a far cry from Ayotte’s message six years ago, when she campaigned as a conservative bent on checking the policies of President Obama. Back then, Ayotte ran as a climate change skeptic. Now she sees addressing it as fundamental to New Hampshire’s future.

“I do believe that climate change is a very important issue," Ayotte says. "So I’ve supported, for example the clean power plan, and so this is an area where I really hope to lead bipartisan efforts.”

Ayotte was the first Republican in Congress to back the president’s plan to reduce carbon emissions, and she later fought Republican efforts to block it.

Jamey French of the Northland Forest Company, who’s appeared in an Ayotte campaign ad, when it comes to the environment and conservation, says Ayotte stands out as an example.

“I think the most important thing, and this is in all respect our governor, who is certainly a good environmentalist, but if we want to get work done on these important issues in Washington, we have to have bipartisan support," French says. "And I think that Republicans who are willing to be outspoken on some environmental issues deserve to be thanked for that.”

French is an independent who supports Hillary Clinton for president. He was a Republican for decades before leaving the party over what he sees as its ideological rigidity. For him, environmental issues are paramount. 

University of New Hampshire pollster Andy Smith says voters like French are relatively rare, but Ayotte’s stance on environmental issues still serve her well politically.

“Those are the kinds of issues that allow you to distinguish yourself but really not impacting that many voters, because you are really not trying to win that many people over by saying you are an environmental voter, you are just saying you are different," Smith says.

And while Ayotte’s record is different from many in her party on environmental matters, it remains a mixed bag.

Her lifetime rating with the League of Conservation Voters stands at 35 percent, though it was higher last year. But the environment is just one area where Ayotte is out to show she’s not a lock-step Republican.

Guns are another.

Overall, Ayotte's record on this issue is mostly doctrinaire. She opposed bills to expand background checks after the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

But after the June mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub, Ayotte backed a bipartisan effort to ban gun sales to people on the federal no-fly list. (That bill failed.)

And while Ayotte has an A-rating with the NRA, this week she said tighter background checks are worth working for: “I’m open to addressing this and making sure we have strong background check system."

Polling shows the most voters favor tighter background checks. And Smith, with UNH, says it makes a lot of sense for Ayotte to try, or at least appear to try, to meet voters where there are.

"Any Republican really has to that in a state like New Hampshire because it’s a democratic state," Smith says. "They really have to get more moderate voters or people who are not that ideological."

And therein lies the opportunity — and the challenge — for someone like Ayotte. Because while the politics of reaching out may seem straightforward, things can go crooked fast if a candidate picks the wrong issue or a ham-handed approach.

Take the response to one of Ayotte’s bolder efforts to soften her partisan edge: free condoms for UNH students. It was an effort to play up a bill she backed to make birth control available over the counter.

But Ayotte has repeatedly voted to cut family planning money from Planned Parenthood. On a recent visit to the state, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards mocked the giveaway: “I’m sorry, handing out condoms on a college campus does not mean you are actually providing health care."

The abortion-rights group Richards leads is working to defeat Ayotte, but anti-abortion activists want her to win.

Ultimately, the condom giveaway pleased neither – and drew lots of scrutiny, which doesn’t help when the goal is to split differences.