Aiming for Gregg’s open seat, Ayotte is unknown big name

It took awhile, but Republicans are finally getting their Senate candidate in New Hampshire.

The question now is: What kind of candidate are they getting?

Five months after Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) announced he would vacate his Senate seat, state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte (R) announced Tuesday that she will resign her current office to explore a run for Senate.

When it becomes official, Republicans will have a Senate candidate with no elective experience who has never run a campaign before. (In New Hampshire, attorneys general are appointed by the governor, not elected.)

That can be a blessing, or it can be a disaster. Only time will tell.

“She’s got very positive favorability numbers, but that’s largely because if you’re attorney general, you’re arresting people and putting them in jail and not in a position to annoy people,” said Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Survey Center. “Her big potential negative is the fact that she hasn’t run before.”

Former Republican National Committeeman Tom Rath said he thinks Ayotte will do well, but that the jury will be out for a while.

“There’s always a question when you go from one role to another role,” Rath said. “It’s never as smooth as people think, and politics is a rough business. … Until you actually get out there, you just don’t know.”

Finding out what Ayotte is made of politically is still a couple weeks away; she said in a statement that she won’t talk about politics until she’s out of office July 17.

At the same time, her candidacy is a foregone conclusion now that she has resigned.

“After discussing this matter with my husband, Joe, and our family, I have decided to resign as attorney general in order to explore a campaign for the United States Senate,” Ayotte said in a statement.

It is rare for a party to run a candidate in a major race despite his or her never having sought political office. When it happens, though, the candidates often come from the ranks of law enforcement.

The GOP is also running former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie as its nominee in this year’s New Jersey governor’s race.

Like Christie, Ayotte has a good, bipartisan reputation as a nonpartisan official. She was appointed to that post by both a GOP and Democratic governor.

Ironically, that situation has also led to her first political challenge.

Gov. John Lynch’s (D) office has put out word that when she was reappointed to her office this year, Ayotte pledged to serve out a full term. Ayotte told the Manchester Union Leader on Tuesday that it was her intention to serve out the term, but circumstances changed.

Lynch did not address that pledge following Ayotte’s resignation, but Democrats point to the publicity over the situation and Ayotte’s resignation as evidence that she can be rattled.

“When it comes to electoral politics, Kelly Ayotte is unproven and untested,” said Eric Schultz, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). “And considering her first move out of the gate is to break a pledge she made to the people of New Hampshire, she also seems unprepared.”

Democrats have a few other arrows in their quiver, including when Ayotte argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in defense of New Hampshire’s law requiring doctors to notify a girl’s parents prior to an abortion. The law was never enforced and was repealed two years ago, but Ayotte pushed, against Lynch’s will, for its defense.

Ayotte has never weathered such political attacks and has never raised money for a political campaign.

Despite never having been on the ballot, though, Ayotte led likely Democratic nominee Rep. Paul Hodes in a UNH poll released last week. She was at 39 percent, compared to Hodes’s 35 percent.

Ayotte’s favorable rating stood at 45 percent, with just 8 percent unfavorable, while Hodes had 32 percent favorability and 23 percent unfavorables. Democrats believe they can bring Ayotte’s numbers closer together once her honeymoon is over, thereby aiding Hodes’s candidacy.

But Smith noted that Ayotte has an advantage as a female Republican running in the Northeast. He likened her to neighboring Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who turned away a spirited challenge from Rep. Tom Allen (D) last year in a tough atmosphere.

“The electorates in New Hampshire and Maine are similar,” Smith said. “Somebody like a Susan Collins or maybe Kelly Ayotte — it remains to be seen — can hold the Republican vote and pick up 3 or 4 percent of the women’s vote just because she’s a woman.”

Ayotte was appointed by Republican Gov. Craig Benson and then reappointed by Lynch despite her political affiliation and despite having opposed Lynch on the parental notification law.

Amber Wilkerson, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), said the committee is happy Ayotte “is considering opportunities that many could not have anticipated even months ago. Clearly, Kelly Ayotte will be a formidable candidate for the U.S. Senate if she decides to run.”

New Hampshire is the final open-seat race in which the GOP does not have a candidate, and it has been the lone vacancy for months. Ayotte should be the GOP front-runner in the race, but she is not expected to be alone.

Former Rep. Charlie Bass (R-N.H.) told The Hill on Tuesday that he wouldn’t necessarily yield to Ayotte, and former gubernatorial nominee Ovide Lamontagne and businessman Fred Tausch are also weighing the race.

Tausch is a particularly good bet to enter the race, having launched an ad campaign this year on fiscal responsibility and having hired some of former Sen. John Sununu’s (R-N.H.) staff. Tausch is largely unknown, though, and trailed Hodes 45-25 in the UNH poll. Bass trailed 40-38.

Sununu said last week that he will not seek a return to the Senate in 2010.