Where She’s Been and Where She’s Going – Kelly Ayotte’s Political Future

 /  Feb. 21, 2021, 12:02 p.m.


Across the country, legions of volunteers and political staffers are cooling down from the most important election in our lifetimes. But the most important election in our lifetimes is always the next one. And while the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections (in just ten months!) are doubtlessly important, Republican pundits and potential candidates already have their eyes set on the next big prize, the 2022 midterm elections.

Republican chances to take back the Senate in 2022 will hinge on the TBD successes and failures of the Biden administration; at first glance, they’re defending far more seats than they’re working to flip. Republican Senators Pat Toomey (PA), Richard Burr (NC), and Rob Portman (OH) are retiring. eighty-seven-year-old Chuck Grassley (IA) a possible fourth, and controversial Senator Ron Johnson faces reelection in Biden-won Wisconsin.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate campaign arm for the GOP, still has goals, of course, citing Arizona, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Georgia as potential pick-up opportunities. With Arizona Governor Doug Ducey ruling out a race for the Senate and controversial Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene hinting that she may run in her home state of Georgia, New Hampshire may be the GOP’s best opportunity. There, a familiar name appears over and over: Kelly Ayotte.

Ayotte, the former state attorney general and US senator, has kept active in Republican circles after losing her reelection bid to then-Governor Maggie Hassan by just 1,017 votes five years ago, including by playing a key role in Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Political consultants have begun mentioning her as a possible candidate to national and local news sources. 

As she inches closer to a run—or defers, perhaps, to Governor Chris Sununu—Ayotte’s professional career over these last five years will come more under scrutiny. Her service on the boards of corporations including Caterpillar and Blackstone, her advisory roles with Microsoft, and her work with veterans charities may draw the eye of investigative journalists and Democratic researchers. Less likely to draw focus is Ayotte’s time spent as a 2018 Spring Visiting Fellow here at the Institute of Politics, where she taught a seminar entitled, “American Leadership at Home & Abroad,” and gave the following yet-unpublished interview to The Gate:

The Gate: After the 2016 elections, did you see a shift in how the US views politics?

Kelly Ayotte: If you look at polling that’s out there that’s been done, a whole bunch of different sets of polling comes to a similar conclusion, which is that the country’s become more divided. It’s not just a recent phenomenon; it’s been happening for a while, and the country’s more divided, whether it’s across geographic lines, religious lines, or other divisions. In part that’s reflected in our politics, and it’s reflected in the acrimony we see too much of in Washington. Unfortunately, I don’t think anything has dramatically changed on that—that acrimony was there when I was there. I had a bipartisan record and I tried to cut through that, but it’s something obviously that isn’t helpful or productive for the nation.

TG: Do you think that now with fewer [elected officials] willing to act in a bipartisan manner, now that Senator Kirk and others lost?

KA: I think if you look at recent trends in elections, with the more so-called moderate or middle-of-the-road or center-right, center-left [candidates] on both sides, I think there are fewer of those folks. They have gone and lost elections. So yes, I think that it makes it harder in terms of who’s going to be the glue or the bridge-builder on a piece of legislation to try and break through—if it’s an issue that really needs bipartisanship. So I think that’s a trend we have seen, not just a Mark Kirk or a Kelly Ayotte—there’s other examples on both sides of the aisle. There are examples of Democrats who have lost too who could probably be considered more moderate.

TG: What do you see as being next for you?

KA: Right now I’m mostly doing private sector work, and I’m doing non-profit work I care about. My kids are ten and thirteen so when I first started running they were two and five. It’s been such a privilege to serve, but it’s been hard—in terms of things I’ve missed and been away from. Now that they’re in the 10-13 phase, I’m enjoying being more present, being able to attend their sports events and things that they do. It’s great! That’s my number one focus right now—obviously I still have to make a living and I still work on things like [being a Fellow]. I’m here because I like to do things like this. So I can engage with people, and keep current on issues. I do some of that, but the kids, the family is the focus.

TG: Do you have any advice for students or young people broadly? 

KA: Actually, I think—it’s not corny, but if you’re a student at the University of Chicago, then you’re already here because you’re bright and you’re capable. Make sure you find that thing you’re passionate about and you care about—because they can’t pay you enough to do something you’re not passionate about.

The thing that I’ve loved most about my career is that I’ve found stuff that I care about. It takes a while sometimes to figure out what your path is going to be. Don’t have preconceived notions. You may think you’re going to do a particular path now, but you’ll find something along the way that you love. So number one, prioritize that. Work hard at it, but it’s good working hard at something you care about. 

Second, if you really want to do something, you’ve got to take some risks to do it—and you have to ask. You have to tell people and put it out there that you really want to do something. 

Third, people and relationships matter. You have all kinds of people that you’ve met through college—try to build that network that you have and understand that that’s how you might get that next job. If you decide to run for office, then that could be the foundation upon which you build a grassroots effort. Those are the three biggest things that I think have helped me along the way.

This image is licensed for redistribution under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, which can be found here. No changes were made to the original image, which is attributed to Gage Skidmore and can be found here.

Ridgley Knapp

Ridgley Knapp is a graduate of the College and second-year MPP student at the Harris School for Public Policy. When he's not working in or writing about politics and policy, he enjoys rowing and the New York Times crossword.


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