Former GOP senator who broke with Trump in 2016 reveals why she is backing him this time

EXCLUSIVE: CONCORD, N.H. — As she runs this year in one of the top gubernatorial elections in the country, former Sen. Kelly Ayotte is making clear she supports former President Trump’s bid to win back the White House.

“Under Joe Biden things cost more, we’re less safe. There’s no question that we are worse off than we were than when President Trump was in office,” Ayotte charged in a national interview with Fox News Digital. “I’m supporting President Trump because I believe we need to change courses for the nation.”

While support for the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee — thanks to his immense grip over the party — seems like a no-brainier for nearly all Republicans running in 2024 for elective office, for Ayotte, it takes on heightened importance.

Ayotte was a rising star in the Republican Party in 2016 as the former state attorney general and first-term senator with a burgeoning profile on national security was running for re-election.

REPUBLICAN GOVERNORS TAKE AIM AT BIDEN OVER ENERGY

Former Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican candidate for governor, is surrounded by supporters as she files her candidacy at the Secretary of State’s office in Concord, New Hampshire, on Thursday. (Fox News – Paul Steinhauser)

But just ahead of the 2016 election, she withdrew her support for Trump over the “Access Hollywood” controversy, in which Trump in a years-old video made extremely crude comments about grabbing women without their consent.

“I cannot and will not support a candidate for president who brags about degrading and assaulting women,” Ayotte said at the time. 

Ayotte lost re-election by a razor-thin margin of just over 1,000 votes at the hands of then-Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan.

But Ayotte slightly outperformed Trump in New Hampshire, as Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton edged the White House winner by less than 3,000 votes.

TRUMP SUPPORTS THIS BLUE-STATE REPUBLICAN CRITIC OF THE FORMER PRESIDENT

Before retiring full time to New Hampshire, Ayotte stuck around Washington briefly after the end of her term, shepherding then-Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch (Trump’s first high court nominee) through his successful Senate confirmation process.

In her post-Senate career, Ayotte enjoyed a lucrative period as she served on corporate boards and in advisory roles at both public and private companies. Among them was News Corp., which at one time was the parent company of Fox News.

Ayotte during the intervening years also kept a close eye on New Hampshire politics, and would occasionally appear at Republican Party events in the state. She also continued to write opinion pieces on major state, national and international issues.

The former senator announced her gubernatorial bid nearly a year ago, after popular Republican Gov. Chris Sununu announced he wouldn’t seek re-election in 2024 to what would have been an unprecedented fifth two-year term.

Ayotte stayed neutral in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary, but she endorsed Trump in early March, right after he clinched the GOP nomination.

“He’ll fix the disaster over the southern border and we’re also seeing it on the northern border, to keep the country safe,” Ayotte told Fox News on Thursday. 

She added that Trump “also has a different vision in terms of freedom and taxes” and argued that President Biden “has really, unfortunately, been a disaster for the country, and we need a change.”

Ayotte was interviewed minutes after she was greeted by a large crowd of supporters as she arrived at the Secretary of State’s office at the Statehouse in Concord, New Hampshire, to officially file her candidacy for governor.

While she’s the polling and fundraising front-runner for the GOP nomination in New Hampshire’s early September primary, she’s come under repeated attack by her rival, former longtime state Senate president Chuck Morse, who came in second in a crowded field of contenders in the 2022 U.S. Senate Republican primary.

Chuck Morse targets Kelly Ayotte over her conservative credentials in their battle for the 2024 GOP gubernatorial nomination in New Hampshire

Former New Hampshire state Senate president Chuck Morse, a Republican candidate for governor, shakes hands with a supporter as he arrives at the Secretary of State’s office to file his candidacy in Concord, New Hampshire, on June 5. (Chuck Morse gubernatorial campaign )

“I think there’s a big difference between myself and Kelly Ayotte,” Morse said last week as he filed at the Statehouse. “I started as a conservative, and I finished as a conservative as Senate president, and I promise you, I will be a governor that’s a conservative.

“That’s not what Kelly did when she went to Washington.”

And hours before she arrived to file, a Morse campaign memo asked which Ayotte would show up, “the so-called conservative candidate Kelly or the moderate establishment she has always been in office.”

THIS FORMER REPUBLICAN SENATOR NOW LAUNCHES BID FOR GOVERNOR IN KEY SWING STATE

Ayotte pushed back on Thursday, emphasizing, “I am a commonsense, strong conservative, and I’m going to continue this state down the path that Gov. Sununu has. And we’re going to have even brighter days ahead.”

And pointing to Morse, she argued, “I’ve known Chuck a long time, and this is a sad way for him to end his political career.”

Morse, in a statement to Fox News, fired back, charging that “Governor Chris Sununu followed a path blazed by conservative leaders like me, while Kelly’s record is littered with bad policy choices and voting with [Barack] Obama over 260 times. This state deserves leaders who face tough questions, not those who hide from accountability. I’m here, ready to answer to the people and continue moving New Hampshire forward. If Kelly can’t face her own record, how can she lead?”

Morse, who wasn’t particularly close to Trump when the former president first ran for the White House, endorsed Trump in December. He’s showcased his backing of Trump and for months questioned Ayotte’s support for the former president.

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While he’s made dozens of endorsements in competitive Republican primaries across the country, Trump remains neutral in the New Hampshire gubernatorial race.

Asked if she’d embrace a Trump endorsement and if she’d campaign with him in the Granite State, Ayotte told Fox News she would “certainly appreciate” the former president’s backing. “Anyone who is offering their support, I’d love to have their support,” she said.

“But on the other hand, you think about what’s the most important issue in this race and it’s the people of New Hampshire,” she emphasized. “So I’m campaigning every day to get the support and earn the support of the voters in this race, and that’s what I’m doing on the campaign trail and will continue to do.”

Ayotte also praised Sununu, who to date has remained neutral in the race to succeed in New Hampshire’s governor’s office.

Gov. Chris Sununu remains neutral in New Hampshire's GOP gubernatorial primary

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu speaks with Fox News during a Republican Governors Association news conference at an oil refinery in Chalmette, Louisiana, on June 3. (Fox News – Paul Steinhauser)

“The path that Gov. Sununu has us on is one of prosperity, one of more freedom… I want to continue us down that path,” she said. “I appreciate his leadership and the work that he’s done, and I want to continue his success for his state.”

Ayotted added that “he and I see each other all the time. We see each other on the campaign trail. We’ve known each other a long time. I respect him and we have a great relationship.”

In her Fox News interview and speaking to reporters at her filing, Ayotte also took aim at former Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig and executive councilor Cinde Warmington, the two main Democrats running for governor.

“My Democratic opponents have a very different vision for New Hampshire. They actually think that the Massachusetts model is better,” she reiterated. 

Since launching her campaign, Ayotte has targeted her Democratic rivals over New Hampshire’s progressive neighbor to the south, which has long been a target for Granite State conservatives.

The Democratic Governors Association, in a statement, charged that Ayotte “is a self-serving politician who will say or do anything to win, even lying to Granite Staters about her dangerous record of restricting reproductive freedom.”

Asked about her stance on abortion as she filed, Ayotte emphasized that she would protect New Hampshire’s state law that allows abortions through the first 24 weeks of pregnancy.

“As governor, I will protect that law. I will not change it. So they’re misleading the women of New Hampshire right now by making them think that there’s going to be something else that will happen. I want them to know what our law, that I will protect it and that I won’t change it,” she said.

Ayotte added that she “would pledge to veto restrictions” to the current state law.

Get the latest updates from the 2024 campaign trail, exclusive interviews and more at our Fox News Digital election hub.

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