Kelly Ayotte kicked off her campaign for governor Monday morning with an impressive list of Republican backers, including former U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg, former Gov. Craig Benson, and current House Majority Leader Jason Osborne.
But the most significant name for the Ayotte campaign may be one that wasn’t on the list: Karoline Leavitt.
A former Trump White House staffer and hardcore MAGA congressional candidate, Leavitt was guest hosting the Grace Curley radio show on Monday. Ayotte is best known in some pro-Trump circles as the Republican who withdrew her endorsement of the GOP nominee during the 2016 campaign.
But the conversation between Ayotte and Leavitt was positive and policy-focused, covering business taxes, bail reform, fentanyl, and the Second Amendment. The “T” word never came up.
It was a highlight of what even supporters of former state Senate President Chuck Morse conceded was a good first day of the Ayotte campaign.
Ayotte seized on an opportunity presented by Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig, who embraced an endorsement in the Democratic governor’s primary from progressive Massachusetts Democrat Gov. Maura Healey.
“I am running for governor because I fear that we are one election away from turning into Massachusetts,” Ayotte said in a statement, a message she repeated in multiple media appearances throughout the day, including a hit on “Fox and Friends.” During that same appearance, she also shared the mantra she plans to use to deal with the Trump issue, at least in the short term. Asked for her prediction for the First in the Nation primary, Ayotte began by targeting President Joe Biden.
“The Republican candidates have been campaigning hard in New Hampshire, but Joe Biden hasn’t been here; he’s been dissing our state,” Ayotte said. “Joe Biden’s been a disaster, and I look forward to supporting our Republican nominee.”
That last phrase was also frequently repeated by Ayotte throughout the day.
In addition to Morse, there is a widespread expectation that Commissioner of Education Frank Edelblut — who nearly upset Chris Sununu in the 2016 GOP primary — will soon enter the race. If he does, it will give Republicans candidates who represent the three legs of the GOP political stool. Ayotte represents the brand of mainstream center-right Republicanism that helped Sununu hold the corner office for eight years. Morse is a traditional conservative with a fiscal-policy orientation Republicans have embraced many times in the past. And Edelblut is the closest candidate of the three to the new, more populist base of the GOP that is energized by cultural issues and is willing to take on controversial political fights.
All three are pro-life, allowing the Democratic Governors Association to label Ayotte a “MAGA candidate.”
Veteran GOP strategist Pat Griffin called Ayotte “the strongest and most electable candidate New Hampshire Republicans could field” to continue to hold the governor’s office.
“Sen. Ayotte’s proven conservative credentials are complemented by a demonstrated record of thoughtful independence, the kind Granite State voters prefer in their governors. She has the experience, resources, and fundraising prowess to not only win the primary but beat any of the Democrats in the race,” Griffin said.
But there are lingering feelings of distrust and disloyalty among some Trump loyalists, who recall her decision to withdraw her endorsement of Trump after the release of the Access Hollywood tapes in October 2016. More than 30,000 voters chose to cast ballots for either the Libertarian U.S. Senate candidate or one-time Republican Aaron Day, in a race incumbent Sen. Ayotte lost to Maggie Hassan by 1,017 votes.
Supporters of the Morse campaign say he would do a better job of keeping conservative voters on board with the GOP ticket than Ayotte. They also note he has the advantage of having just run statewide last year, while Ayotte has been largely off the political stage since she was ousted from her Senate seat.
Still, with an endorsement list that includes Trump backers like Bruce Breton and conservatives like state Rep. Bob Lynn, Ayotte appears to be working to build a coalition that pulls together two wings of the party. It doesn’t hurt that she raised nearly $400,000 in the first half of 2023 or that a recent NHJournal poll put her support at 69 percent, with Morse at 22 percent and Edelblut at 9 percent.
“Let’s go,” Leavitt told Ayotte as they wrapped up their interview Monday. It was no doubt music to Ayotte’s ear.