Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) is caught in the middle of the Republican Party’s growing divide between defense and budget hawks.
Ayotte has quickly gained prominence partnering on defense issues with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), replacing former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) in a group commonly referred to as “The Three Amigos.”
But her alliance with McCain and Graham comes with political risks and a potential backlash from conservative activists.
Ayotte’s difficult balancing act played out last week with Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) filibuster related to the Obama administration’s use of armed drones to attack U.S. citizens.
Ayotte agrees with McCain and Graham on U.S. drone policies, though she didn’t take part in their attack on Paul.
“He and I have a different viewpoint,” Ayotte told The Hill. “I certainly respect Sen. Paul for standing up for what he believes in, but I also very much understand and appreciate Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham’s views that they expressed on the underlying policy.”
Ayotte has built up a fiscally conservative record in the Senate — she has a 92 percent rating from the conservative Club For Growth, ninth highest among senators who served in 2012. She’s a featured speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this weekend (her picture is alongside Paul’s on a promotional flyer).
The freshman senator, who is up for reelection in 2016, was mentioned as a dark-horse vice presidential candidate last year and served as a prominent surrogate to Mitt Romney’s campaign.
Yet, the party is changing, and that has raised questions about her role in it.
“She basically is navigating on the razor’s edge between the old guard and new guard,” said GOP political strategist Ron Bonjean. “She’s been able to bolster her defense credentials while at the same time being a fiscal hawk. It’s the perfect place to be at this point.”
Bonjean said that Ayotte was smart to stay out of McCain and Graham’s feud with Paul.
However, maintaining that sweet spot may be difficult as President Obama begins looking to Republicans to start negotiating a “grand bargain” on the deficit.
Some conservative bloggers criticized Republican senators, including Ayotte, McCain and Graham, for having dinner with Obama on the night of the filibuster.
Ayotte makes no apologies for sitting down with the president.
“It was important for me to tell him my views and concerns about the fiscal state of the country,” she said.
She is positioned to be an influential voice in a deficit deal because of her desire to reverse the sequester over defense cuts, a viewpoint not all Republicans share.
Before surviving a tough primary challenge and later winning her Senate seat, Ayotte served as New Hampshire’s attorney general.
She became aligned with McCain and Graham through the Armed Services Committee, playing a prominent role in 2011 with the hawks defending the right of the military to detain terror suspects on U.S. soil, an issue tied to Paul’s drone filibuster.
The 44-year-old lawmaker got closer to McCain and Graham in 2012 as they focused on two issues in the midst of the presidential campaign: the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, and sequestration. Ayotte soon became a regular on the Sunday political talk show circuit.
While her connection with McCain and Graham has helped her gain stature in the clubby Senate and beyond, the Arizona senator said Ayotte didn’t have politics in mind when they joined forces.
“I think it has really a lot to do with her being involved in the same issues that Lindsey and I are, more than anything else,” McCain told The Hill. “I met her in New Hampshire in my campaign … and when she was running, I went up and did town halls with her.”
Asked about “The Three Amigos,” Ayotte downplayed her role, saying that she works with many legislators.
“The whole amigo thing is something I think the press has created more than anything else,” she said. “I work with a lot of senators. I obviously have great respect for both of them. I appreciate their viewpoints.”
Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, said Ayotte has highlighted her strong views on defense for as long as she’s been in politics, which is how she burnished her conservative credentials.
But the danger now is that many Tea Party Republicans are shifting away from wanting to spend more money on defense, and some have supported the sequester cuts to the Pentagon.
Graham has taken on his own party over the sequester, questioning where the “party of Ronald Reagan” has gone.
The defense hawks have been applauded by Tea Party groups as the most vocal critics of the Obama administration’s reaction to last year’s attack in Benghazi. Those same groups sided with Paul last week.
Jeff Chidester, a conservative activist and radio host in New Hampshire, said Ayotte has developed a good conservative record so far, but that some on the right were disappointed that she didn’t join Paul.
“Since then, it’s been quite the conversation here in new Hampshire,” Chidester said. “I think her silence and her close affiliation with [McCain and Graham], that’s probably the biggest concern.”
New Hampshire strategist Mike Biundo, who was former Sen. Rick Santorum’s (R-Pa.) 2012 presidential campaign manager and now runs Manchester-based RightOn Strategies, said Ayotte’s fiscal conservativism is not questioned in a state with no sales or income taxes.
“She is the traditional New Hampshire conservative,” he said. “You look at her record, put it up against any of the other conservatives, and she’s got a very strong record on the issues that play very well here in New Hampshire.”