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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 head 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 stepbrother and two half-brothers. Ayotte graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 1990 with a degree in political science. In college, she was a competitive skier. Ayotte attended Villanova University Law School, where she served as editor of the Villanova Environmental Law Journal and earned a JD in 1993. 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. In 1998 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 Ayotte briefly served as counsel to New Hampshire Governor Craig Benson in 2003 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, in which she defended the state’s recently adopted law requiring parental notification for minors to get an abortion. Following a series of defeats in the lower courts, she appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court which ruled that the lower courts were incorrect to strike down the entire statute as unconstitutional but avoided commenting on the broader legal challenge. In 2009 Democratic Governor John Lynch reappointed Ayotte as attorney general.4

When New Hampshire Senator Judd Alan 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 nationwide for the GOP, Ayotte defeated Hodes with 60 percent of the vote.9

Ayotte arrived in the Senate as one of the party’s stars. Shortly after taking office, she delivered the 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.”10 Her standing was boosted during the 2012 presidential campaign when the presumptive Republican nominee Willard Mitt Romney publicly considered Ayotte as a possible vice-presidential running mate. “That was a surprise,” Ayotte recalled.11 And in early 2013, Senate Republican Leader Addison Mitchell (Mitch) McConnell of Kentucky brought her into the party leadership when he named her a deputy whip.12

Ayotte soon won the respect of Democratic colleagues as well. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, who chaired the Armed Service Committee when Ayotte joined the panel recalled, “Ayotte is brilliant, fair, strong.” Levin highlighted Ayotte’s role as a key ally in his successful effort to sideline a proposal that would have removed sexual assault and harassment cases from the military chain of command and given civil judicial courts jurisdiction over them.13

In addition to Armed Services, Ayotte served on a number of different committees in the Senate, expanding her policy experience: Budget; Commerce, Science, and Transportation; Small Business and Entrepreneurship; and Aging in the 112th Congress (2011–2013). After one Congress, she transferred off Small Business and Entrepreneurship to Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs in the 113th Congress (2013–2015). In the 114th Congress (2015–2017), Ayotte headed two subcommittees: Readiness and Management Support on Armed Services and Aviation Operations, Safety and Security on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

Ayotte’s service on Armed Services defined her first years in the Senate. Three others on the committee became important colleagues: Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, John Sidney McCain III of Arizona, and Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina, who often worked together critiquing the Obama administration’s national-security policies. Ayotte became an important ally, coauthoring an op-ed piece with Lieberman in July 2011.14 Ayotte joined McCain and Graham in attacking U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s response to the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya in Benghazi.15 And later, she opposed former Nebraska Senator Charles Timothy (Chuck) Hagel’s nomination as Secretary of Defense.16

Ayotte became particularly outspoken against the Obama administration after Russia invaded the Crimea peninsula and took it from Ukraine by force in 2014. She argued that the administration’s ‘reset’ policy—an earlier attempt to improve relations with the Kremlin—had backfired. “The message,” Ayotte declared, “was that America would look the other way on Russia’s transgressions.”17 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.18

On domestic policies, Ayotte supported a conservative approach on several major issues. She opposed same-sex marriage, abortion, and expanded gun regulations.19 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.20

Ayotte also made several high-profile stands against many in her party. She was one of 10 Republicans to vote for Loretta Lynch to become the first African-American, female U.S. Attorney General in 2015.21 On immigration reform, Ayotte described the 2013 proposal that included a path to citizenship for longtime undocumented immigrants as “tough but fair.”22 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.23 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.24 “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.”25

As her re-election neared, Ayotte remained popular in the state and was developing a national reputation in the Republican Party.26 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.”27

Early on, Ayotte’s campaign emphasized 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.”28 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 found herself in a public feud with Republican presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump, when she said that she would support but not endorse him. On Election Day, Ayotte lost to Hassan by 1,017 votes out of more than 739,000 total votes cast.29

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.30

Footnotes

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

2Sarah Schweitzer, “VP Speculation Marks the Latest Stage of Ayotte’s Swift Ascent,” 21 July 2012, Boston Globe: A1; Almanac of American Politics, 2012 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011): 1021; Politics in America, 2014 (Washington, DC: CQ-Roll Call, Inc., 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.

4In a unanimous decision in January 2016, the higher court ordered the state parental notification abortion law case 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.

11Sarah Schweitzer, “Right Place, Right Time,” 1 August 2014, Boston Globe: D1.

12Almanac of American Politics, 2014 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013): 1061; Politics in America, 2014: 614.

13“Senator Carl Levin, United States Senator from Michigan (1979–2015),” Oral History Interviews, U.S. Senate Historical Office (23 December 2014), Washington, DC.

14Almanac of American Politics, 2014: 1062.

15Ed O’Keefe, “President Obama Defends Susan Rice against Criticism from John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte,” 14 November 2012, Washington Post: n.p.

16Almanac of American Politics, 2014: 1061; Jennifer Rubin, “Sen. Kelly Ayotte Takes the Baton from Lieberman,” 28 November 2012, Washington Post: n.p.

17Joseph Gerth, “Ukraine Crisis Is Obama’s Fault, Sen. Kelly Ayotte Says in Louisville,” 17 March 2014, Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), https://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/local/2014/03/17/ukraine-crisis-is-obamasfault-sen-kelly-ayotte-says-in-louisville/6528231/.

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

19Politics in America, 2012: 609; Almanac of American Politics, 2016 (Washington, DC: National Journal, 2015): 1148.

20Almanac of American Politics, 2014: 1062; Politics in America, 2014: 614.

21Almanac of American Politics, 2016: 1148.

22Katherine Skiba, “Senate Bill Gets Crucial GOP Backing,” 10 June 2013, Los Angeles Times: A5.

23Almanac of American Politics, 2014: 1062.

24Kelsey Snell, “GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte Faces Reelection Fight as an Independent Party of One,” 12 November 2015, Washington Post: n.p.

25Snell, “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: n.p.

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

27Almanac of American Politics, 2016: 1148.

28Snell, “GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte Faces Reelection Fight as an Independent Party of One.”

29“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present”; Siobhan 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.

30“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.

U.S. Congress. Tributes Delivered in Congress: Kelly Ayotte, United States Senator, 2011-2017. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2017.

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