Ayotte navigates foreign policy minefield on way to November
By NBP Staff | September 1, 2016, 12:11 EDT
WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), currently engaged in the political fight of her life, has spent much of the summer drilling down on issues of local concern to New Hampshire voters. But it’s the first term Republican’s work on international issues that may ultimately determine her fate.
Ayotte, who must stave off a Republican primary challenge in September before facing New Hampshire’s Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan later this fall, has spent her five years in the Senate crafting an impressive foreign policy resume. A member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who is married to an Iraq War veteran, Ayotte (48) is now regarded as one of the GOP’s leading neo-conservative voices.
Ayotte’s campaign is hoping that her foreign policy creds will be an asset in her fight for re-election, but in a year when voters appear to be in a particularly isolationist mood, the freshman senator faces attacks on both her left and right flanks from opponents who claim she is too much of a hawk.
The third amigo
Since her election to the Senate in 2010, Ayotte has worked closely with senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on international issues, earning her the nickname “the third amigo” – a role formerly occupied by Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (D/I-CT) who retired in 2013.
Together, the three Republican senators have repeatedly called out President Barack Obama for his handling of the terrorist attack in Benghazi; they have called on the president to take stronger actions in the fight against ISIS; and they have fought vigorously against the administration’s nuclear deal with Iran.
Earlier this year, Ayotte stood shoulder-to-shoulder with McCain in denouncing the president’s handling of an international incident in which Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps detained 10 U.S. sailors in violation of international law. Ayotte and McCain condemned Iran’s “humiliating” treatment of U.S. sailors who allegedly strayed into Iranian waters, slamming the administration’s tepid response to the sensitive incident.
In August, Ayotte strongly condemned the Obama administration’s $400 million payment to the Iranian government on the same day that the terrorist sponsoring regime released several U.S. prisoners, a payment Ayotte considers a ransom payment. And she took credit for getting the Pentagon to release more details about suspected terrorists held at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
But while tough talk on Iran and terrorism has earned Ayotte kudos with some conservatives, her relationship with McCain – an establishment figure by any standard — could prove toxic in a year when many Republicans are angry with Washington insiders.
Earlier this summer, Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump refused to endorse either Ayotte or McCain, raising speculation that he was encouraging his supporters to support the two senators’ Republican challengers. He ultimately did endorse both Ayotte and McCain, but only grudgingly.
Trouble on the right
Ayotte’s friendship with recognizable establishment figures is not the only thing causing her trouble with Trump supporters and other more isolationist Republicans. Ayotte’s own reputation as a supporter of immigration reform, free trade and of the use of military force abroad is also causing concern among some voters. And it has put her sharply at odds with her Republican primary challenger Republican state senator Jim Rubens, who has been highly critical of Ayotte’s views on foreign policy.
“Kelly Ayotte has become a cheerleader for Hillary Clinton’s strategy of failed nation-building wars,” Rubens told New Hampshire’s WMUR. “These strategies have led to terrorism, ISIS being active in eight countries, thousands of refugees and Americans at home are less safe.”
Rubens who endorsed Trump early in the primary process, has blamed U.S. military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, which Ayotte supported, for forming an ISIS stronghold in Syria. In an interview with the NewBostonPost, Rubens criticized Ayotte’s support for sending more arms to moderate Syrian rebels and for increasing the U.S. air strikes in the region and stressed that the U.S. should focus on halting immigration from countries where ISIS or other terrorists have a stronghold.
“Congress must use the power of the purse to stop the president from allowing the immigration of any refugees from places known to harbor terrorists,” Ruebens said.
Unlike Rubens and Trump, Ayotte supports letting in a limited number of well-screened Syrian refugees — although she says that our “first priority must be to ensure that any refugee who comes to the U.S. does not present a threat to the American people.”
Ayotte has also taken heat for her reputation as a supporter of free trade and of strong international alliances. Although she has said that she will not support the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in its current form, Ayotte is a supporter of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other trade agreements, which Trump has campaigned against.
She has also taken issue with the GOP nominee’s views on NATO, particularly in the wake of recent terror attacks in Europe, which she said recently “demonstrate the need for NATO-with American leadership.” Trump has repeatedly called upon the United States to reduce its role in NATO, calling on Europeans to “pay their fair share.”
Trouble on the left
But if Ayotte’s differences with Trump have caused her trouble with some voters on the right, her areas of agreement with the GOP nominees have caused her trouble with others on the political left.
Ayotte says she plans to vote for Trump for president because to do otherwise would be to hand the presidency to Clinton, whom she says “has not demonstrated the effective vision to keep our country safe.” But Ayotte has also stopped short of endorsing the GOP nominee, whose rhetoric she has criticized at times.
That has not stopped Ayotte’s Democratic opponent from attempting to paint her as a Trump lackey whose foreign policy views echo those of the more isolationist GOP nominee. After Trump’s NATO comments last month, for example, Gov. Hassan’s campaign published a press release accusing Trump of jeopardizing U.S. national security and questioning the judgment of all those who support him, including Senator Ayotte.
Hassan has also sought to connect Ayotte to Trump’s widely-criticized remarks about Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq and who spoke at the Democratic National Convetion in favor of Hillary Clinton for president.
Although Ayotte released a statement condemning Trump’s remarks and supporting the Khan family, she did not renounce her willingness to vote for the GOP nominee. Hassan’s campaign saw an opportunity, and quickly released a statement titled “Gold Star Mother Rejects Trump and Those Like Ayotte Who Support Him.” Hassan has also called out Ayotte for refusing to answer a query about trusting Trump with the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Hassan, who has no experience in the field of foreign affairs and earlier this year said that she keeps up on international issues by reading the news, has spoken out against deploying U.S. combat troops to fight ISIS, an option that Ayotte has pushed to keep on the table. Hassan has also advocated for a political solution in Syria, while Ayotte supports sending more arms to rebels fighting the Assad regime.
Ayotte’s campaign has wasted no time in attacking Hassan for being soft on foreign policy, calling out the Granite State governor for her support of the administration’s Iran nuclear deal and balking at Hassan’s claim that she “will stand up to anyone, regardless of political party, to keep our country safe.”
“Hassan has been silent on the Obama administration’s ransom payment to Iran and refused to justify her continued support for the Iran Deal; refused to address [Democratic presidential nominee Hillary] Clinton’s mishandling of classified information; and waffled on Syrian refugee resettlement,” Ayotte campaign spokeswoman Liz Johnson told Roll Call earlier this summer.
Walking a political tight rope
Although New Hampshire voters say that the economy and jobs are the issues that matter most to them, Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report told the Boston Globe recently that foreign policy issues are being discussed more in the New Hampshire Senate campaign than in any other congressional race in the country.
It remains unclear, however, which way voter attention to foreign policy issues cuts for Kelly Ayotte.
On the one hand, Ayotte is clearly more experienced on issues of foreign affairs than any of her challengers. And a recent poll by Vox Populi shows Ayotte leading Hassan 60 percent to 32 percent among the 25 percent of N.H. voters who say national security and terrorism are the most important issues of the campaign. (That same polls shows Hassan leading Ayotte slightly overall, but within the margin of error.)
On the other hand, national polling data from Pew Research reveals that 57% percent of Americans believe that the U.S. should turn its attention inwards and let other countries address their own problem. According to the same study, nearly half of those Americans surveyed feel that U.S. involvement in the global economy hurts the country.
Earlier in the year, Ayotte supporters hoped that her strong internationalist stands and support of military families would be an asset in her race for re-election. But the most recent WBUR poll of likely New Hampshire voters showed Ayotte trailing the more dovish Hassan by double digits. And, in a state where Republicans gave Donald J. Trump his first primary win, Ayotte’s foreign policy views just may have her pinned between a rock and a hard place.
Kelly Thomas contributed to this report. Contact her at [email protected].