In a one-on-one conversation with NHJournal, GOP candidate for governor Kelly Ayotte said the party faithful are supporting her because “they know I have the fire in the belly to win.”

And, she added, Democrats agree, which is why they’ve targeted her rather than her Republican primary opponent, former state Senate President Chuck Morse.

“Remember when Joyce Craig said that I was the most dangerous threat that New Hampshire’s ever seen? The reason they say things like that is because they know I’m a threat to their model. And the model they’re supporting is one that is not New Hampshire. It’s the Massachusetts model. It’s higher taxes, it’s less freedom.

“I’m a threat to their agenda. They know I can beat them, and I look forward to doing that in November,” Ayotte said.

Ayotte spoke to NHJournal after formally filing her candidacy declaration with Secretary of State Dave Scanlan. Candidate filings are part of Granite State political tradition, particularly during the First in the Nation presidential primary season, and often feature a crowd of cheering supporters lining the hall outside the secretary’s office.

Ayotte’s crowd was particularly large, and Scanlan was overheard asking her, “Are you running for president?”

Kelly Ayotte greets Secretary of State David Scanlan at his office as she files for governor’s race on June 13, 2024.

A former one-term U.S. senator, Ayotte lost her 2016 bid for a second term to then-Gov. Maggie Hassan by just 1,017 votes. In that same election, anti-Ayotte independent Aaron Day and Libertarian Brian Chabot received a combined 30,000 votes.

Team Ayotte says its wide range of support, including prominent Trump backers like Bruce Breton of Windham and libertarian-leaning Republicans like House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, shows she has the support of the entire GOP coalition.

Ayotte has led solidly in every poll — including a 50-26 percent lead in the NHJournal/Praecones Analytica poll last month — and raised more money than any candidate in either party. However, there are grumblings from the grassroots about her conservative bona fides, a concern the Morse campaign has seized on.

In a memo from Morse campaign strategists Dave Carney and James McKay released Thursday morning to coincide with Ayotte’s filing, they asked which Ayotte would show up: “the so-called conservative candidate Kelly or the moderate establishment she has always been in office.”

Asked about Morse’s attacks, Ayotte told reporters, “I’ve known Chuck a long time, and this is a sad way for him to end his political career. But look in this room, look at the representatives, the people I have supporting me. I am a common sense, strong conservative, and I’m going to continue this state down the path that Gov. Sununu has and we’re going to have even brighter days ahead.”

Team Morse fired back. “It’s clear Kelly Ayotte is avoiding New Hampshire voters and the debate stage because of her terrible record. Gov. Chris Sununu followed a path blazed by conservative leaders like me, while Kelly’s record is littered with bad policy choices and voting with Obama over 260 times,” said Morse in a statement.

“This state deserves leaders who face tough questions, not those who hide from accountability. I’m here, ready to answer to the people and continue moving New Hampshire forward. If Kelly can’t face her own record, how can she lead?”

The Ayotte campaign has confirmed to NHJournal she will be debating Morse during the primary campaign.

Asked about suggestions that she is already looking past the primary, Ayotte’s husband Joe Daley interrupted the NHJournal interview to offer his take.

“Comments that Kelly is looking beyond the primary already? Those are just the next thing on the laundry list of things that opponents who are losing, who are gaining no traction and are so far behind will say to get some kind of attention. It’s to distract how poorly they are doing on the issues that are important in this race. That’s the bottom line.”

Asked to name her top issue in this race, Ayotte reiterated the “Don’t Mass Up New Hampshire” message that’s been the centerpiece of her campaign. It also appeared on buttons sported by supporters in the State House.

“We cannot allow New Hampshire to go down the path of Massachusetts. So, keep our economic advantage, protect our freedom. And then in terms of the top economic issue, we need to tackle this housing crisis because we need to have housing that workforce, that our children, can afford.”

On the issue the two top Democrats running for governor have named as their number one — abortion — Ayotte accused her would-be opponents are “misleading the women of New Hampshire.”

“New Hampshire has passed a law. People came together. That law right now protects a woman’s freedom to obtain an abortion up to six months of pregnancy. I believe that there’s consensus in New Hampshire. As governor, I will protect that law. I will not change it.”

Asked by former New Hampshire Democratic Party communications director Colin Booth, who attended the filing as a tracker for a Democratic website, if she would “pledge to veto any further restrictions” on abortion in New Hampshire, Ayotte said yes.

Granite State Republicans say the next big moment in the governor’s race involves endorsements: Sununu and former President Donald Trump. Sununu is close to both candidates, but many party insiders expect him to endorse Ayotte.

Morse has made no secret of his hope for a Trump endorsement, and he’s gone out of his way over the past six months to make his support for the former president loud and clear. But an event from hundreds of miles away in Maryland may not bode well for Morse’s hopes.

Trump endorsed GOP U.S. Senate candidate Larry Hogan, despite Hogan’s repeated criticism of Trump and assertions that he’s never voted for Trump and never will.

“This could be good news for Ayotte,” one GOP campaign professional told NHJournal on background. “It’s a sign Trump doesn’t want to [screw] up our primary.”