Kelly Ayotte is in a tough place — smack dab in the middle of gun control advocates to the left and pro-gun activists to the right. New Hampshire’s junior senator holds positions that run counter to the rigid ideology that often characterizes both sides of the gun debate.
The incumbent Republican senator isn’t getting much help from either side in her reelection campaign against Gov. Maggie Hassan. But she’s not the only one in this position. Other Republican Senate candidates in swing states are also feeling the pressure from both sides as they fight against the orthodoxy Washington often expects on gun control.
“Republicans that are in tight races have tried to tackle the issue in different ways,” said Robert Spitzer, professor of political science at the State University of New York Cortland and author of several books on gun control politics.
“The atmosphere surrounding the discussion of gun issues has changed over the last several years and other people didn’t want to talk about it, but there are some races, like Kelly Ayotte’s, where they are trying to walk this line between gun safety and gun rights,” he said in an interview with NH Journal.
One side of Ayotte’s record stems from her vote against a 2013 bill that would have expanded background checks after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Gun reform advocates and political action committees made it their mission to kick her out of office when they had a chance. But Republicans have argued that legislation would have done little to keep guns away from criminals and would have burdened average Americans seeking to obtain a firearm.
On the other side, gun rights activists have criticized her latest support of preventing terror suspects from purchasing guns and support for procedural votes on allowing gun bills to be debated in the aftermath of the Orlando nightclub shooting in June.
“I’ve strongly supported the constitutional rights of the people of New Hampshire,” she said in a primary debate this month. “But I also strongly believe that if you’re a terrorist or a criminal, you shouldn’t have a firearm.”
Ayotte needs the gun rights voters to show up to the polls in November since gun control advocates are generally behind her opponent. The Americans for Responsible Solutions PAC endorsed Hassan in May and has already spent more than $1.5 million in ads against Ayotte.
Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association, the largest gun rights organization in the country, is showing Ayotte some tough love for her gun control votes. They’ve spent less than $50,000 so far in the election on mailers against Hassan, according to public disclosures.
“It’s interesting that she’s [Ayotte] not running into the arms of the NRA, but by the same token, she has not abandoned her general gun rights approach and I’m assuming she is going to be asked about the gun issue in this election and will have to address it,” Spitzer said.
But it could be possible for Republicans to have a more moderate stance with gun rights and still survive reelection. The ARS endorsed Republicans Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Mark Kirk of Illinois in their election bids. Toomey was a co-author of the 2013 background check legislation that Ayotte opposed.
“If Pat Toomey survives it’ll be in no small part to the groups supporting him, but it could send a message that if you oppose the NRA and survive, that might change some public attitudes,” Spitzer said.
Gun control has popped up a bit between Hassan and Ayotte. ARS ran an ad criticizing Ayotte for her vote against background checks. Ayotte pushed back with an ad highlighting her support from local law enforcement.
It also didn’t help that Ayotte faced a primary opponent in Jim Rubens. Although she easily won the September 13 primary with 79 percent of the vote, gun rights activists saw an opportunity to jump ship and support a more conservative candidate who was vocal about their differences on gun control.
“I will fiercely resist any attempt to weaken the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens,” Rubens said in a debate. “Terrorists or criminals will simply buy guns on the black market. These feel-good anti-gun bills will do nothing.”
Rubens endorsed Ayotte after the primary, but she needs his voters’ support if she’s going to hold on to her seat.