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Granite Status: Sen. Kelly Ayotte in the political catbird seat right now

Senior Political Reporter

October 20. 2013 5:45PM

"ROCK STAR" KELLY. U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, elected nearly three years ago, has become the rising Republican star on Capitol Hill — establishment Republican, that is.

She had already been gaining prominence before the partial government shutdown, taking a lead role in probing and criticizing the Obama administration over the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

She had been a target of gun controlers like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's "Mayors Against Illegal Guns," after voting against a universal background check measure in the spring of this year. For the same vote, she had become a hero of pro-Second Amendment advocates.

And she has been prominent, along with her "amigos" Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, on several issues including fiscal and foreign policy.

Ayotte had been successfully straddling the line between Tea Party favorite and establishment Republican — until the shutdown occurred.

It was time for Ayotte to pick a side, and she chose against the "de-fund Obamacare" move. And not in a shy way.

During the shutdown, Ayotte turned up prominently on talking head TV. Her mantra was yes, Obamacare should be repealed — or at least delayed — but shutting down the government was the wrong avenue, from a political and a policy perspective.

Here was the one-time "Mama Grizzly," backed in 2010 by none other than Sarah Palin in her primary over the more conservative Ovide Lamontagne, now taking the lead role in a highly-publicized confrontation with de-fund/shutdown champion Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

This was the same Cruz who, in August, had come to New Hampshire for a state GOP fundraiser and called Ayotte a "rock star" and "tough as granite."

Granite, indeed, when Ayotte took Cruz to task in a Republican Senators meeting for his strategy. She blamed him for a conservative group's attacking her and other Republican senators for supporting the key procedural vote that allowed the Senate to vote down the House-passed de-funding of Obamacare.

That got her a lengthy, scathing piece in The American Spectator, titled, "Kelly Ayotte's Lynch Mob."

No matter. Ayotte strongly disagreed with the shutdown approach. And she assumed a leadership role in the legislation that ended the partial shutdown. She was the first senator to publicly announce the Senate deal.

Ayotte told us in an interview at the weekend that Maine's Susan Collins reached out to her and Alaska's Lisa Murkowski to try to build a bipartisan plan. The three Senate Republicans then worked with other Republicans and Democrats — mostly women, by the way — to work on their own agreement, which, she said, "in the end did not end up being the final agreement."

The group of 14 went to the leadership "to say there is a group of us who were tired of this," Ayotte said, and were ready to announce their own agreement if the leadership did not reach its own.

"What we did was prompt our leadership and push the leadership to get something done," Ayotte said. Acting as a "catalyst," she said, "is the best way to frame it."

"It was a time when no one was reaching out or looking across the aisle. It helped prompt some movement on the part of the leadership."Ayotte shrugged off the criticism from the far right.

"I was just looking to call it as I see it," she said. "I ran against Obamacare and my voting record is very strong against Obamacare. But nobody who was pushing this de-funding movement could describe for me what the end game was.

"You've got to bring some common sense to this and say, yes, I believe in my position on Obamacare but we need to get a result for the people of the country," she said. "And to shut down the government in my view was just never a winning strategy. So that's where I differ with those people."

Ayotte said that as a member of the Senate Budget Committee, she will be on the House-Senate conference committee working on a long-term budget agreement. So she will continue to have a key role.Did she expect to have such a high profile after less than three years in office?

"No," she said, "but I also knew I wanted to get things done. I want to solve problems for the country and it's obviously a challenging environment. Trying to find people to work with an drive to get things done has drawn my interest."


A LITTLE SELF-PROMOTION? If anyone in the media had missed all the praise for Ayotte, her office saw to it to make us keenly aware.

Last Thursday, her office sent out an email with the subject line: "What They're Saying: Ayotte Praised for Bipartisan Leadership and Showing 'Needed Spine' to End Government Shutdown, Address Debt Ceiling."

It included pro-Ayotte material from the Boston Globe, Sen. Collins, Time, the Concord Monitor, the Union Leader and even Josiah Bartlett Center's Charlie Arlinghaus, as well several quotes from Ayotte and about Ayotte from broadcast or published sources.

Self-promotion is nothing new in politics. But wouldn't this sort of email have been more appropriate from a campaign committee, donor-funded source, rather than her official, taxpayer-funded, electronic stationery?

One veteran Capitol Hill Republican aide pointed out that these "What They're Saying" emails, issued under congressional Senate letterhead, are common.

The aide noted that Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, and both House members, as well as Senators and House members across the country on both sides of the aisle, often do the same.The aide said the email was "an update on (Ayotte's) legislative work" and such emails in general are "informational in the same way the press releases that members of Congress issue every day are informational.

"They don't have anything to do with the core functions of campaigns, influencing the outcome of elections or raising money."

Really? Self-promotion has nothing to do with influencing elections or raising money? Since when?


FUND-RAISING. The third quarter fund-raising figures are in from the 2014 candidates for federal offices and not surprisingly, the incumbent Democrats have substantial leads over Republican challengers.


Senators' figures are not yet posted on the Federal Election Commission web site, but Sen. Jeanne Shaheen's office tells us she reported having raised $950,000 from July 1 through Sept. 30 and entered October with $2.8 million on hand.


Her only major announced Republican challenger, former state Sen. Jim Rubens, announced Thursday he had put $250,000 of his own money into his campaign and had raised an additional $20,000 in the 12 days between his formal announcement on Sept. 18 and the Sept. 30 filing deadline. Rubens said he had $260,000 on hand.


(Ayotte is not up for reelection until 2016, but her office was unable to provide us with her third-quarter fund-raising totals as of Friday. She had $1.1 million on hand as of the June 30 end of the second quarter.)


In the House races, Democratic U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter raised $183,110 during the third quarter and $381,474 so far in the election cycle. She reported having $281,000 on hand as of Sept. 30.


Neither of her 1st District announced Republican opponents, Frank Guinta and Dan Innis, raised money during the third quarter.


Guinta campaign consultant Ethan Zorfas has said, however, that the campaign collected $200,000 for a fund-raiser that had been scheduled for Oct. 8 featuring Ayotte and 2012 vice presidential nominee and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan. The fund-raiser was cancelled due to the government shutdown but the Guinta camp kept the money as campaign contributions.


Innis did not announce his candidacy until Oct. 9.


U.S. Rep. Ann Kuster, meanwhile, raised $330,275 in the third quarter and $1.02 million so far in this election cycle. She reported having $809,000 on hand.


Her lone announced 2nd District GOP opponent, Gary Lambert, reported raising $173,571 since he announced his candidacy on Sept. 4 and had $172,681 on hand.


OBAMACARE: LOVE IT OR HATE IT. Two polls released last week showed wildly different results on how Granite Staters supposedly feel about Obamacare.


First up was a New England College poll, released Tuesday. The survey of 1,063 registered voters taken on Oct. 7 to 9 showed 58 percent of Granite Staters support the Affordable Care while 38 percent disapproved and 5 percent were unsure.


Two days later came a poll conducted by the UNH Survey Center for WMUR. This one, surveying 663 "randomly selected adults" between Oct. 7 and 16, showed only 40 percent favored the law, while 47 percent opposed it and 14 percent were neutral or did not know enough about it to say.


So, go figure.


The NEC poll, by the way, showed that 49 percent blamed Republicans in Congress for the recent government shutdown, while 30 percent blamed President Barack Obama.


MATCH-UPS. The New England College polls tried to look ahead to potential 2014 state primary and general election matchups.


A hypothetical U.S. Senate Republican primary contest had former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown receiving support from 47 percent of those polled, with former U.S. Rep. Charlie Bass at 21 percent, Rubens at 5 percent and conservative activist Karen Testerman at 4 percent.


In general election matchups, NEC did not poll Shaheen vs. Brown or Shaheen vs. Rubens. In did poll Shaheen vs. Bass, with the incumbent ahead of the former congressman 51 to 32 percent.


In House matchups, Shea-Porter, with 43 percent, and Guinta, with 42 percent, were in a statistical dead heat, (as usual), while Kuster was ahead of Lambert, 46 to 26 percent.


The poll also looked at a hypothetical matchup in a governor's race between Gov. Maggie Hassan and Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas. Hassan led, 53 to 25 percent.


A UNH-WMUR poll, released late Friday, had Shea-Porter ahead of Guinta, 48 to 32 percent and ahead of Innis, 43 to 32 percent. It had Lambert and Kuster in a statistical dead heat, with Lambert actually edging Kuster, 34 to 33 percent.


HELLO MAGGIE. Guess who's "featured" on the front page of the Republican Governors Association web site (and not in a kind way)?


Our own Maggie Hassan.


The Republicans have no candidate, or even prospective candidate (with the exception of Brad "I Won't Take The Pledge" Cook) to put against her, yet. But the RGA is apparently trying to soften her up with a cutting web ad that likens her to the big spenders in Washington.


"Politicians in Washington just can't seem to grasp the idea that you can't spend more money than you have. Sound familiar?" says the narrator. "You bet it does. That's how Maggie Hassan governs."


The ad accuses Hassan of proposing a budget "with massive spending increases" that would have been paid for "with a casino that didn't even exist. That's a new one that not even the politicians Washington have tried."

John DiStaso is senior political reporter of the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. He can be reached at and folllowed on Twitter: @jdistaso.

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