Ask any two Republicans who their choice is for president in 2016 and you’ll get three answers; but when it comes to the GOP choice for vice president, there’s an emerging sense of agreement, especially in the establishment wing of the party: Senator Kelly Ayotte.
The field of potential top of the ticket candidates include a wide range of possibilities: Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Mike Pence, and many more. Any of them could benefit from sharing the spotlight with a conservative woman rising star who has real national security bona fides and hails from the state with the first primary elections in the 2016 cycle.
“Her prospects are good. Why not Pence-Ayotte or Walker-Ayotte?” said Weekly Standard Editor and conservative power-broker Bill Kristol. “Defense and foreign policy will be a big issue, and she's a leader on that. And since she’s already on the vice presidential short list, she might want to look at running for the top job.”
Compared to some of the other prospective candidates, Ayotte’s resume stacks up. Ayotte, who is also up for reelection in 2016, came into the senate at the same time as Paul and Rubio and has two years more experience as a legislator than Cruz. Steve Schmidt, who managed John McCain's 2008 presidential bid, said that the other GOP senators vying for national office all have huge flaws whereas Ayotte does not.
“There are fundamental questions around their electability and around Paul’s ability on some issues to navigate himself toward the majority opinion of the GOP. Cruz is toxic and has no chance of national electability. Rubio damaged himself during the immigration debate,” he said. “The reality for Republicans is that it couldn’t possibly be more open.”
Ayotte is also one of the only female GOP top personalities that could counter a Democratic ticket with Hillary Clinton at its top, and at a time when the Republican party has been reeling from a number of scandals that have left the party vulnerable to the accusation that they are not savvy at courting the women’s vote.
Schmidt, who was instrumental in the choice of Sarah Palin to be the GOP’s last female vice presidential candidate, now says that the lesson of the Palin episode is that national candidates – especially national female candidates -- have to be able to convince the voters they are ready to be president on day one.
“Ayotte could turn the ‘war on women’ narrative into a punch line,” said Schmidt. “In the category of those really talented women who can really break into the next level, I think Kelly Ayotte stands out. She has a lot of skills. There's no on-the-job training and she’s clears that hurdle.”
He also agrees with Kristol that if Ayotte wants to be considered for vice president, she might consider exploring a run for the top job.
“The best way in a year when the field is as open as it is, the best way to be picked as vice president it to mount a presidential campaign. Show you can navigate that, sharpen your skills, and see how far you can go in that process,” he said. “Kelly Ayotte has every potential to be able to do those things, but as of yet she has not yet been tested on the national stage.”
Ayotte’s national political prospects have also made her the target of some well-moneyed interest groups who may be looking to knock her down a few pegs Michael Bloomberg’s group Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG) spent over $1 million on attack ads against Ayotte, criticizing her for opposing elements of gun control legislation following the nearby Sandy Hook killings.
MAIG officials refused to comment on whether their campaign was in recognition that Ayotte could soon ascend to the national stage. But for Republicans, the effort was a clear shot across the bow at an Ayotte national candidacy.
“The Bloomberg guys really went after her last summer with a big ad blitz in New Hampshire and all the national press to go along with it trying to paint her as extreme,” said one GOP operative who was involved in that fight. “That didn't really stick but it shows the big money on the left understands her potential and would just as soon see her nipped in the bud."
In 2012, the Mitt Romney campaign considered Ayotte for the ticket, two former senior campaign officials confirmed, before ultimately choosing Rep. Paul Ryan. The thinking at the time was that Romney needed a staunchly conservative running mate to balance out his moderate record as Massachusetts governor.
Ayotte also has wide acceptance in the conservative movement. In her 2010 election, she received donations from a litany of conservative donor groups, including Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, the Koch Brothers, and New York billionaire donor Paul Singer.
But Ayotte’s path to a national GOP ticket has obstacles.
Ayotte’s conservative credentials were challenged late last year during the debate over the government shutdown, when she ultimately cast a key procedural vote that could have stopped the closure before it began. That lead to a confrontation between her and Cruz behind closed doors. Ayotte demanded that Cruz disavow attacks on her by the Senate Conservatives Fund a group tied to Cruz and founded by former Sen. Jim DeMint.
Palin, who once called Ayotte the “Granite Grizzly” also has turned against her. Last summer, Palin publicly called for a primary challenger for Ayotte after Ayotte supported the immigration reform legislation that was working its way through the senate.
Some in the party think Ayotte may be hampered by her membership in the “Three Amigos,” the national security triumvirate of her, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham. Although not as hawkish as the other two, Ayotte travels with the pair and often agrees with their more hawkish views on foreign policy, placing her at odds with a big chunk of the GOP electorate.
“Her positioning as the female amigo in the McCain-Graham foreign policy triumvirate is a weakness in the GOP primary because that’s not where the Republican party grassroots are any more on this issue,” one senior GOP strategist said.
Kristol, who agrees with the McCain-Graham foreign policy worldview, responded by saying that the national security divide inside the GOP caucus is real but evolving and there are plenty of young GOP stars who are foreign policy hawks but don’t have the baggage McCain brings to the table.
“One of the things that will happen next year, you might get a bit of a generational change, that’s when you have Rubio, Ayotte, [Arkansas Senate candidate Tom] Cotton, and [Alaska Senate candidate Dan] Sullivan emerging,” he said. "I think at that point Ayotte steps out from the McCain-Graham shadow.”
For now, Ayotte is claiming that she’s not considering running for national office.
“While Senator Ayotte is honored to be mentioned, she wants nothing more than to continue serving the people of New Hampshire in the U.S. Senate, and she is running for reelection,” her spokesperson Liz Johnson told The Daily Beast.