“Kelly takes the positions that she takes based off what she’s hearing from folks at home and what she thinks is best for the state of New Hampshire,” said Ayotte campaign manager Jon Kohan. “There’s a number of folks who give her opinions on where she stands on legislation, whether here at home or other places. She listens to all of them, but at the end of the day it comes back to what she thinks is going to be best for the state.”
On a local level, conservative leaders say their complaints stem less from Ayotte’s Senate record and more from her meddling in the state party apparatus, often to the disadvantage of grassroots candidates. In particular, they point to her involvement in the state House speaker elections last fall, when she helped defeat the conservatives’ chosen candidate, former House Speaker Bill O’Brien, who won his party’s support in a caucus vote. Ayotte and several other party leaders endorsed a different candidate for speaker, leading to the election of a third candidate, who won with a majority Democrats’ votes.
A group of activists, led by O’Brien, met earlier this month to discuss fielding a challenger for Ayotte, but has not yet come up with a candidate. In the meantime, some of that momentum has moved toward a second effort—one that Aaron Day, chair of the state’s Republican Liberty Caucus, calls “the nuclear option.”
“Kelly’s rating, if you’re a liberty Republican, is horrendous. It may be slightly higher than what we’re likely to see from Hassan,” Day said in an interview with National Journal. “The difference is, Maggie Hassan can’t screw up the internal part of the Republican Party, which is what Kelly Ayotte has done.”
So Day is planning a third-party candidacy, designed specifically to draw Republican votes away from Ayotte—even though he says he’s aware of the help it would provide Hassan. Day said he wants Ayotte to use that same power and influence she wielded in the speaker’s race to stop the state legislature from renewing its temporary Medicaid expansion—or else he’ll sign up to join the Senate race.
“My goal is not to become the independent senator from New Hampshire; my goal is to make sure that the Republican Party doesn’t push forward a piece of legislation that will destroy the state of New Hampshire,” said Day. “This is clearly the nuclear option.”
It’s a bit of a twist to the challenges Republicans in other states have faced defending their right flank. Rather than simply insisting their own candidate can win a general election, Day’s supporters don’t care if they lose, so long as they make an example of Ayotte.
Kohan called the threats of a third-party challenge “a new wrinkle,” but nothing that would move the campaign in terms of strategy.
“You’re talking about a problem in a presidential election that I think is easy to get over for a candidate like Kelly Ayotte because she has that cross-party appeal; she’s competing for votes that others can’t compete for,” said Kohan. “Because she appeals to a much wider audience, regardless of party, we’re not concerned about making up votes if we need to because we’re going into universes that others don’t have the ability to compete in or talk to.”