Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) had absolutely nothing good to say about Donald Trump in new interviews with the Associated Press and CNN, and she refused to provide a straight answer when asked whether she’d trust the Republican presidential nominee with the nuclear codes.
Ayotte said she won’t be afraid to disagree with Trump, telling CNN “I will take on my own party.” The closest she came to saying something favorable about him came during the AP interview, when she expressed hope Trump would at least surround himself with smart people if elected president.
“We have a strong system of checks and balances,” she said. “I think he’ll surround himself, I assume, with people who will help him understand.” (“Check and balances,” however, would do little to prevent Trump from launching a nuclear attack.)
Ayotte — who trailed her Democratic challenger, Gov. Maggie Hassan, by 10 points in a recent poll — is still planning to vote for her party’s nominee. She continues to try and make a distinction between voting for Trump and “endorsing” him, however, saying that while she plans to do the former, she won’t do the latter.
Asked by a CNN reporter to explain the difference, Ayotte said that “there’s actually a big distinction.”
“Everyone gets a vote, I do too,” she continued. “And an endorsement is when you are campaigning with someone.”
Ayotte indicated that she might yet change her mind about who she votes for yet.
“With any candidate, I always reserve the right to re-evaluate my position,” she said. “My position at this moment is I’m going to be voting for him.”
Ayotte stands by Trump despite the fact he doesn’t seem to be a big fan of her. During an interview with the Washington Post earlier this month, Trump lamented that Ayotte hadn’t endorsed him and questioned whether “weak people” like her “should be representing us.” But he attempted to walk that back during a subsequent rally, where he characterized her as “a rising star [who] will continue to represent the great people of New Hampshire so very well for a long, long time.”
Progressive activists are messaging on Ayotte’s trying-to-have-it-both-ways position. A group of activists wearing Trump masks actually chased the senator while she ran the Corporate 5K Road Race in Manchester last Thursday.
“Kelly Ayotte can’t run from her Trump problem, and she can’t have it both ways,” Becky Wasserman, New Hampshire statewide organizer for 350 Action, said in a statement. “By supporting Trump, she’s supporting racism, climate denial, and violence.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) is trying to walk a similar tightrope. Rubio repeatedly called Trump a “con artist” during the Republican primary and said he’s “wholly unprepared to be president of the United States.” During an interview with the Miami Herald editorial board on Monday, Rubio said he “stood by everything I ever said in my campaign” but plans to vote for Trump anyway.
“We’re in a different place now. Now we have a binary choice — not a choice between 15 people or 12 people. There are two people in the world that are going to be the next president, either Donald or Hillary,” Rubio said. “In our republic, while the presidency is powerful, there is a balance of power in this country, and a significant amount of it resides in the United States Senate. It’s one of the reasons why I seek to run again.” (Last week Rubio cited his desire to see more Scalia-like justices appointed to the Supreme Court as a reason he’s backing Trump.)
Like Ayotte, Rubio is seeking reelection this year. The only Republican senator up for reelection who’s publicly anti-Trump is Mark Kirk (IL), who said last week that Trump is “too racist and too bigoted for the Land of Lincoln.” Lisa Murkowski (AK) remains undecided.
A FiveThirtyEight analysis published Tuesday suggests Ayotte, who is faring worse than Rubio in the polls, might not have much incentive to stick with Trump.
“Trump’s tumble has coincided with worsening GOP numbers in key states,” FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten writes. “It may cost the party the Senate.”