AYOTTE, Kelly

1968–

Biography

After a 16-year legal career in which she rose to become attorney general for the state of New Hampshire, Kelly Ayotte won election to the United States Senate as only the second female Senator in her state’s history. On Capitol Hill, Ayotte quickly made a name for herself in national security policy. As the ranking Republican and then chairwoman of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support, she fought automatic cuts to military spending that were part of the federal government’s 2011 budget sequestration. “I’m still for making these reductions,” Ayotte said in 2012, “just not through sacrificing our national defense.”1

Kelly Ayotte was born in Nashua, New Hampshire, on June 27, 1968, to Mark and Kathy Veracco Ayotte. She has a step-brother and two half-brothers. Ayotte graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 1990 with a major in political science. In college she was a competitive skier. Ayotte earned a J.D. from Villanova University in 1993, serving as editor of the Villanova Environmental Law Journal. In 2001, she married Joseph Daley, a fighter pilot who flew missions in the Iraq War. They have two children.2

After serving as law clerk to Justice Sherman Horton of the New Hampshire supreme court from 1993 to 1994, Ayotte moved to private practice until 1998 when she became a prosecutor in the New Hampshire attorney general’s office, rising to become head of the homicide division. In a widely covered trial, she successfully prosecuted the killers of two Dartmouth College professors in 2001.3 In 2003, Ayotte briefly served as counsel to New Hampshire Governor Craig Benson before he named her state deputy attorney general. In 2004 Benson appointed Ayotte the first female attorney general in New Hampshire history where, among other cases, she argued Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, concerning the state’s abortion law, in 2005. After appealing the case to the U.S. Supreme Court following a series of defeats in the lower courts, the Supreme Court vacated the earlier rulings without commenting on the broader legal challenge to state law. In 2009 Democratic Governor John Lynch reappointed Ayotte as attorney general.4

When New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg announced that he would retire at the end of his term in 2011, Ayotte resigned as attorney general and announced her candidacy for the open seat. She positioned herself as a fiscal and social conservative promising to lower taxes, control illegal immigration, and to repeal “Obamacare,” the name Republicans had given to President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, the Affordable Care Act. The state Republican establishment quickly rallied around her candidacy. In the primary election, Ayotte faced Ovide Lamontagne, a former New Hampshire gubernatorial candidate, who ran on a conservative, anti-tax platform aligned with the Tea Party.5 In July Ayotte won an important endorsement when Tea Party favorite Sarah Palin, former Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate, called her “one tough Granite Grizzly.”6 “I stand with [the Tea Party] on those issues, on protecting individual freedom,” Ayotte said. “We need to stop the unprecedented expansion of government, appeasing our enemies, and creating an entitlement culture.”7 Ayotte narrowly won the primary with 38 percent of the vote; Lamontagne took 37 percent. Despite her close primary win, she entered the fall campaign as the favorite.8

In the general election, Ayotte faced Democratic Congressman Paul Hodes, who sought to shore up his candidacy by criticizing Ayotte’s tenure as attorney general. But Ayotte responded with ads touting some of her successful prosecutions, and criticized Hodes’s support for the Affordable Care Act. In what turned out to be a wave election for the GOP, Ayotte won the general election in the fall with 60 percent of the vote.9

Ayotte arrived in the Senate as one of the party’s stars. “What Kelly brings to our caucus,” Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander said, “is the diversity of being a mother of two young children, the wife of a small-businessman, she’s a woman and she’s from the Northeast.”10 Shortly after taking office, she delivered the first Republican response to President Obama’s weekly radio address in 2011. “The American people sent us to Congress with clear instructions: make government smaller, not bigger,” she said. “And stop spending money we don’t have on programs that aren’t working.”11

Her standing was boosted during the 2012 presidential campaign when the presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney publicly considered Ayotte as a possible vice-presidential candidate. “That was a surprise,” Ayotte recalled.12 And in early 2013, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky brought her into the party leadership when he named her a deputy whip.13 Her rapid rise in Washington came while spending every weekend back in New Hampshire with her family.14

Ayotte served on a number of different committees in the Senate, expanding her policy experience: Armed Services; Budget; Commerce, Science, and Transportation; Small Business and Entrepreneurship; and Aging (112th Congress). After one Congress she transferred off of Small Business and Entrepreneurship to Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs (113th Congress). By her third Congress Ayotte headed two subcommittees: Readiness and Management Support on Armed Services and Aviation Operations, Safety and Security (114th Congress).

Ayotte’s service on Armed Services defined her early Senate career. Three committee colleagues became important mentors: Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, John McCain of Arizona, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who often worked together critiquing the Obama administration’s national-security policies. Ayotte became an important ally, co-authoring an op-ed piece with Lieberman in July 2011.15 Ayotte joined McCain and Graham attacking U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s response to the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya in Benghazi.16 And later she opposed former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel’s nomination as Secretary of Defense.17

Ayotte became particularly outspoken against the Obama administration after Russia invaded the Crimea peninsula and took it from Ukraine in 2014.18 She also made it clear that she blamed Russia’s leadership for disrupting international politics. “[Russian President Vladimir] Putin has instigated, fueled, and perpetuated the crisis in eastern Ukraine. If Putin is truly concerned about the well-being of Ukrainians in Donetsk, he could end this crisis by stopping the flow of Russian fighters and weapons to Ukraine,” she said.19

On domestic policies Ayotte supported a conservative approach on several major issues. She opposed same-sex marriage, abortion, and expanded gun regulations.20 She favored a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution and opposed the use of earmarks in federal appropriations. When Republicans threatened to default on the national debt in a stand-off with the Obama administration, she joined a group of 19 senators to oppose a compromise solution.21  

But Ayotte developed something of a centrist reputation because of several high-profile stands. She was one of 10 Republicans to vote for Loretta Lynch to become the first African American female U.S. Attorney General in 2015.22 On immigration reform Ayotte described the 2013 proposal that included a path to citizenship for long-time undocumented aliens as “tough but fair.”23 And in 2012 she bucked her party to vote in favor of authorizing the Environmental Protection Agency to set toxic air standards from power plants.24 On the issue of climate change she believed that “human activity significantly contributes to climate change,” and her approach to environmental issues was often pragmatic.25 “I went to the Senate to solve problems for the country and New Hampshire,” she explained. “When you have something like the Land and Water Conservation Fund that you know has bipartisan support . . . yet you’re fighting to get . . . it done, it’s frustrating. But it’s important.”26

As her reelection campaign neared, Ayotte remained popular in the state and was developing a national reputation in the Republican Party. More than a year before the 2016 election Ayotte had hired a campaign manager and managed to raise $2 million.27 Her Democratic challenger was the popular New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan. “If you had a race between Maggie Hassan and Kelly Ayotte,” former state attorney general Tom Rath noted, “you literally have a race between the two most popular political figures in the state.”28

Early on, Ayotte’s campaign decided to emphasize her ability to work against the gridlock in Washington. “I’ve tried to focus on issues where we can find common ground,” Ayotte said. “I believe we’re going to need some bridge builders who can actually be consistent with their principles but bridge divides.”29 But on Election Day, Ayotte narrowly lost to Hassam by 1,017 votes out of more than 739,000 total votes cast. Ayotte was criticized when Senate Republicans decided not to act on President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy created when Justice Antonin Scalia died in February 2016. And she got into a public feud with the Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, when she said that she would support but not endorse Trump.30

 After leaving Congress, Ayotte became a visiting fellow at Harvard University. In early 2017, the Trump administration asked her to help shepherd Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch through his, ultimately successful, Senate confirmation hearings.31

Footnotes

1Timothy Buckland, “Ayotte Sponsoring Bill That Would Avoid Defense Cuts,” 3 February 2012, The Union Leader (Manchester, NH): A3.

2Sarah Schweitzer, “VP Speculation Marks the Latest Stage of Ayotte’s Swift Ascent,” 21 July 2012, Boston Globe: A1; “Kelly Ayotte Biography,” The Biography.com, accessed 16 March 2017, http://www.biography.com; Almanac of American Politics, 2012 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011): 1021; Politics in America, 2014 (Washington, DC: CQ-Roll Call, 2013): 614; Franci Richardson, “War in Iraq: N.H. Counsel Pilot Husband’s Homecoming,” 31 March 2003, Boston Herald: 8.

3James Pindell, “Kelly Ayotte Got Her Start as a Tough Prosecutor,” 5 November 2016, Boston Globe: n.p.; Almanac of American Politics, 2012: 1021.

4The decision was decided unanimously in January 2016 to return the case, a state parental notification abortion law, back to the lower court (546 U.S. 320). Almanac of American Politics, 2012: 1021–1022; Politics in America, 2014: 615

5Almanac of American Politics, 2012: 1021–1022; Susan Milligan, “Calculus for Primary Is All New in N.H.,” 20 July 2010, Boston Globe: A1.

6Almanac of American Politics 2012: 1022; Milligan, “Calculus for Primary Is All New in N.H.”

7Politics in America, 2012 (Washington, DC: CQ-Roll Call, Inc., 2011): 608.

8Almanac of American Politics, 2012: 1021; Brad Knickerbocker, “Kelly Ayotte Election,” 15 September 2010, Christian Science Monitor: 3.

9Milligan, “Calculus for Primary Is All New in N.H.”; Almanac of American Politics, 2012: 1022; Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

10Politics in America, 2012: 608.

11Politics in America, 2012: 608.

12Schweitzer, “Right Place, Right Time.”

13Almanac of American Politics, 2014 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013): 1061; Politics in America 2014: 614.

14Schweitzer, “Right Place, Right Time.”

15Almanac of American Politics, 2014: 1062.

16Ed O’Keefe, “President Obama Defends Susan Rice against Criticism from John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte,” 14 November 2012, Washington Post: n.p.

17Almanac of American Politics, 2014: 1061; Rubin, “Sen. Kelly Ayotte Takes the Baton from Lieberman.”

18Gerth, “Ukraine Crisis Is Obama’s Fault.”

19“Kelly Ayotte on Vladimir Putin, Humanitarian,” 13 August 2014, Wall Street Journal: n.p.

20Politics in America, 2012: 609; Almanac of American Politics, 2016 (Washington, DC: National Journal, 2015): 1148.

21Almanac of American Politics, 2014: 1062; Politics in America, 2014: 614.

22Almanac of American Politics, 2016: 1148.

23Katherine Skiba, “Senate Bill Gets Crucial GOP Backing,” 10 June 2013, Los Angeles Times: A5.

24Almanac of American Politics, 2014: 1062.

25Kelsey Snell, “GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte Faces Reelection Fight as an Independent Party of One,” 12 November 2015, Washington Post: n.p.

26Snell, “GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte Faces Reelection Fight as an Independent Party of One.” See also Rebecca Leber, “Kelly Ayotte Is the Senate’s Most Surprising Environmentalist,” 5 February 2015, New Republic: https://newrepublic.com/article/120976/kelly-ayotte-looks-2016-election-environmental-votes (accessed 1 February 2017).

27“Preparing for Battle,” 13 March 2015, Boston Globe: B9.

28Almanac of American Politics, 2016: 1148.

29Snell, “GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte Faces Reelection Fight as an Independent Party of One.”

30Siobhan Hughes, “For Sen. Kelly Ayotte, Court Fight Is Felt Close to Home,” 25 March 2016, Wall Street Journal: n.p.; Jaclyn Reiss, “Donald Trump Bashes Senator Kelly Ayotte of N.H.,” 2 August 2016, Boston Globe: A12; Kristina Peterson, “GOP Senator Gambles by Ending Support of Trump,” 17 October 2016, Wall Street Journal: n.p.

31Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present”; “Kelly Ayotte Is Working for Donald Trump,” 1 February 2017, Boston Globe: n.p.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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Bibliography / Further Reading

Ayotte, Kelly. "State Coordination of Water Allocation Management and Water Pollution Regulation." Villanova Environmental Law Journal 4 (1993): 129-177.

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