New Hampshire’s Ayotte still undecided on GOP nominee

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It’s just days before New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary and Kelly Ayotte, the Granite State’s only Republican senator, has yet to endorse a Republican candidate for president.

Ayotte, whose endorsement is highly coveted by GOP candidates, in 2012 acted swiftly to endorse former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. But in 2016, none of the GOP candidates hail from from New England, and earlier this week Ayotte told she will not be endorsing anyone ahead of her state’s primary on Feb.9.

Ayotte said that the various GOP campaigns have been understanding regarding her decision not to commit.

“I will tell you I’m in regular communication with them because they’re always reaching out to me,” she told Politco.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker maintained a similar non-committal stance until Friday, when he announced that he is backing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

But unlike Ayotte, Baker doesn’t have a reelection battle on his hands this fall. Ayotte is currently in a fight for her political life.  She is being challenged in her bid for reelection by New Hampshire’s Democratic governor Maggie Hassan.

As Elaina Plott explained in an October piece for National Review Online, the Democratic party is betting big on Hassan and providing the popular governor with plenty of institutional and financial support.  Ayotte, on the other hand, faces backlash from her own party for her support for the Gang of Eight immigration bill and on account of her reputation as a moderate and bipartisan senator.

Plott writes:  Ayotte “is caught between a Democratic party that will ‘walk over broken glass to get her out,’ as New Hampshire political strategist Ryan Williams puts it, and a GOP in the throes of internecine strife.”

Ayotte’s tough reelection battle might not be the only reason that the New Hampshire senator is holding off on endorsing a candidate. Ayotte may also stay out of the race in order to preserve her chances of being considered as a potential running mate of whomever ultimately receives the nomination.  New Hampshire law would allow Ayotte to run for both the Vice Presidency and her seat in the U.S. Senate at the same time.

Ayotte is well-liked by former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who has helped raise money for her re-election campaign, and by her Senate colleague Marco Rubio (R-Fla), whose SuperPAC has created an advertisement on her behalf.  Remaining neutral allows Ayotte to stay in both men’s good graces, should either win the nomination.

But just because Ayotte has not endorsed does not mean she has been silent.

On Thursday, Ayotte took ABC News to task for its failure to include the GOP’s sole female candidate, former California executive Carly Fiorina, in Saturday night’s debate.

ABC News hasn’t budged.

 And Ayotte has been critical of Ohio governor John Kasich for his support of the federal shipyard closing process, which could impact the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

As for that race for Senate, Hassan’s campaign treasurer, Kathy Sullivan, told Bloomberg News recently that if the GOP nominates real estate mogul Donald Trump or conservative firebrand Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, it will help Hassan’s prospects for unseating Ayotte.

Trump currently maintains a large lead in New Hampshire, with the latest Real Clear Politics average of polls showing that the real estate tycoon is heading into the weekend before the primary with a 16 point lead.

“It’s just easy to paint a picture that’s she’s one of them, of that extreme right wing of the Republican Party, which is taking control of the Republican Party,” Sullivan told Bloomberg. “We should be that lucky.”

Fergus Cullen, the former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party who has fought in vain to keep Trump off the state ballot, agrees.

“If Donald Trump is the nominee, Kelly Ayotte might as well resign because it’s all over,” Cullen was quoted saying in a report released last month. “He’s hurting every Republican across the country by pushing away the exact constituencies we need to win.”