08.18.09

The Next Sarah Palin?

Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire’s GOP rising star, is a folksy, gun-loving mother of two who has her eyes on a Senate seat. And, you betcha, she married a dude who puts Todd to shame. 

Shortly after a relatively unknown New Hampshire attorney general, Kelly Ayotte, resigned her post last month to consider a run for U.S. Senate, New Hampshire Democrats ran an ad comparing Ayotte to Sarah Palin. In the ad, the song “Two of a Kind” plays in the background as Ayotte states her desire to resign in order to pursue higher office. Text fills the screen: “Both Palin and Ayotte put politics before the public.” The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ran a similar ad in July, comparing Ayotte to Palin and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, calling them all “quitters.”

So why are Democrats spooked by a 41-year-old attorney general from New Hampshire? Maybe it’s because they’re worried Ayotte, with her budding star power and folksy charm, might actually be another Sarah Palin, a star who rockets out of nowhere. With the national GOP desperate to replace outgoing Sen. Judd Gregg with a Republican—and desperate for any Senate victory, for that matter—Ayotte may prove to be the party’s best prospect.

Ayotte is “untested,” said one GOP consultant, “so the name Sarah Palin comes to mind—you never know exactly what the end result will be.”

“She’s an absolute up-and-comer,” says one Republican political consultant. “She’s charming, nice, and polite. She’s untested, so the name Sarah Palin comes to mind—you never know exactly what the end result will be.” In a sign of Ayotte’s potential, the GOP consultant asked that his Palin comparison not be made on the record because he hopes to work with Ayotte in the future.

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Democrats have a tight hold on New Hampshire’s top offices and have been incredibly successful in the state for the past two voting cycles. Judd Gregg’s decision to retire means Republicans are anxious to break their losing streak by beating the major Democratic challenger, Rep. Paul Hodes, in 2010.

New Hampshire political analyst Dean Spiliotes said Ayotte is definitely a rising star, but it’s unclear how she will do out on the stump. As New Hampshire’s nonpartisan attorney general for the past five years, Ayotte’s national profile was largely defined by a case she took to the Supreme Court, successfully defending New Hampshire’s parental-notification law for abortions.

“She’s young, she’s got a nice family, two little kids, married, photogenic, articulate, etc…” Spiliotes said. “All the things you want in a candidate. And she’s fresh. A lot of other Republican candidates have already lost other races. The flip side is, we don’t know much about her as a campaigner.”

There are small glimpses of what Ayotte might look like on the trail. Last week, she made her first public appearance since resigning, where she charmed local Republicans in Wolfeboro with her commitment to gun rights and condemnation of abortion, stimulus spending, and nontraditional marriage—views Republicans were anxious to hear her express. She “struck a local note,” according to one publication, by saying she formed her political approach as a busgirl at a local restaurant, Mame’s.

“And at that restaurant I learned that listening is the most important thing to serving your customers well,” she said. It reminded one of Palin’s talent of mixing the personal with the political.

When asked about her views on abortion, Ayotte invoked her two children under age five. And her background is almost as charmingly woodsy as Palin’s seemed a year ago. Ayotte is the wife of Joseph Daley, a National Guardsman and Iraq war vet, who “founded a small landscaping and snowplowing business,” according to the Concord Monitor. He’s got the earthiness of Todd without any obvious separatist tendencies.

The potential pitfall for Ayotte, as a Washington Times profile noted, is that she might be too D.C.-groomed for New Hampshire, which tends to flaunt its flintiness and independence. The National Republican Senatorial Committee is holding a fundraiser for Ayotte in late September in Washington, with attendees expected to contribute between $500 and $2,000 each. She already has a high-profile campaign manager straight from the Hill, Brooks Kochvar, who was Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-MN) chief of staff, as well as a former K Street lobbyist on her staff. Even the state’s Republican Party Chairman John Sununu—himself a former D.C. macher—told the Times he hopes the NRSC “understands that New Hampshire doesn’t really respond well to having candidates designated from outside the state.”

In fact, New Hampshire Democrats say it is Ayotte’s appearance as a national-party puppet that led them to draw the comparison with Palin.

“She’s more at the whim of her D.C. handlers, much like Sarah Palin,” said the state party’s spokeswoman, Victoria Bonney. “She’s not standing up for what she believes in.” Bonney pointed out that Ayotte had come out against gambling frequently as attorney general, while a recent fundraising event she attended was underwritten by Foxwoods Casino. Dean Spiliotes said the Dems are hitting Ayotte hard early on, so they can define her before she has a chance to promote her own image.

But Ayotte is already doing well, according to a University of New Hampshire poll, which had her leading her opponent, Paul Hodes, by 39 percent to 35 percent. Another poll by Research 2000 for the liberal Daily Kos Web site had the two at a tie. It’s the kind of numbers that would make even Sarah Palin blush.

Liz Goodwin has written for the New York Sun, GothamSchools, the Tico Times, and Fodor's Travel Guides.