In 2013, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte was just two years into her first term when the Manchin-Toomey amendment, a bipartisan measure that would have expanded background checks for gun sales, was introduced. Ayotte was one of 46 senators, most of them fellow Republicans, who opposed it. After the vote, her approval rating tanked.
At the time — just a few months after 20 children were slaughtered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in neighboring Connecticut — there was massive support in the Granite State for expanding background checks; 75 percent of New Hampshire voters supported requiring them at gun shows. After the vote, roughly half of voters said Ayotte obstructing the measure made them less likely to reelect her.
Fast-forward to today, and Ayotte is locked in a fierce battle to keep her job, running against popular New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan. Ayotte’s is considered one of the most at-risk Republican seats in an election that could flip the Senate to Democratic control. She finds herself in this uncomfortable situation after drastically underestimating both her constituents’ increasing frustration with Congress’ failure to pass meaningful gun reform and gun-control groups’ increasing political power.
Last month, Americans for Responsible for Solutions — the gun-control group founded by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, after Giffords was shot in the head in 2011 — released an ad criticizing Ayotte’s 2013 failure to support background-check legislation. “Why is Sen. Ayotte playing politics with our safety?” it asked.
Ayotte’s campaign quickly shot back with its own spot (disingenuously) claiming she did support background check legislation. The response came so quickly that American for Responsible Solutions Executive Director Pia Carusone thinks the campaign must have pre-filmed it.
That, Carusone tells Rolling Stone, is what “you do if you’re worried, you think it’s a vulnerability, you are expecting to be attacked…. And frankly, she’s right. She should be concerned.”
This election cycle, Ayotte is gun-control groups’ public enemy number one. Everytown for Gun Safety has picketed her office in New Hampshire and fliered campaign events. And in the last two months alone, ARS has spent more than $800,000 making ads and buying airtime opposing Ayotte’s reelection bid.
That’s a rather staggering figure when you consider that all gun-rights groups combined — including the NRA, the Safari Club and the National Shooting Sports Foundation — spent a total of $1.3 million during the same period, on some 250 pro-gun members of Congress, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. (Ayotte is the recipient of the third-largest chunk of that money, with some $29,000 going to support her candidacy.)
An even more staggering number: in the first six months of this year, gun-control groups gave no money at all to support or oppose any other member of Congress.
Gun-control groups have dramatically increased the money they’ve spent on lobbying Congress since Sandy Hook; most notably, there was a nearly ten-fold increase in such spending between 2012 and 2013. But these groups are not as big as the gun lobby — they were outspent in 2015, $1.2 million to $11.4 million — so they still need to be selective with they put their money.
“Are we going to be involved in a red state where the senator has an A+ rating from the NRA and doesn’t want to talk at all about the fact that we have a gun violence problem in America and that senator has a 85 percent chance of reelection? No. We have to be smart with our resources,” Carusone says.
As far as a potential “return on investment,” Ayotte is a good bet. For one thing, three years after the Manchin-Toomey vote, her approval rating still hasn’t recovered.
Part of that has to do with her state’s demographics. “Of all the states in the country that ARS has polled, New Hampshire consistently shows the highest [levels of] support for responsible gun laws, like closing the gun-show loophole or ensuring that suspected terrorists can’t buy guns — usually north of 90 percent,” Carusone says. The group’s research shows that “states that have a history of hunting and generational gun ownership tend to be more favorable toward reasonable restrictions on firearm usage and ownership in the U.S.”
Within weeks of ARS beginning its advertising onslaught against Ayotte, there were signs that its laser-focused strategy was paying off.
As often happens after mass shootings, four separate gun-control measures were introduced in the Senate after the June massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. (The fact that it took a 15-hour Democratic filibuster to have any of them called to a vote is telling of the Republican-controlled Senate’s interest in advancing legislation that would impose any limitations whatsoever on Americans’ tragicomically easy access to guns.)
Among those four amendments were two separate measures — one authored by a Democrat, the other by a Republican — ostensibly aimed at preventing terrorists from acquiring guns.
Gun-control groups like Everytown for Gun Safety supported the Democrats’ amendment; the NRA supported the Republicans’. In the end, both measures aimed at closing the so-called “terror gap” failed in votes that fell mostly along party lines.
Ayotte voted for both, seemingly contradictory terror amendments, the only Republican to do so.
As far as Carusone is concerned, that’s a win — especially given the fact that, just six months earlier, Ayotte voted against a terror-gap amendment introduced after the San Bernardino shooting that was nearly identical to the Democrat-authored one she voted for in June.
“It’s the latest example to our organization that she’s feeling the pressure on gun issues,” she says.
Even better: Ayotte was among a bipartisan group of senators who on June 24 introduced yet another measure aimed at keeping terrorists from purchasing guns. In a Concord Monitor op-ed, she called the Terrorist Firearms Prevention Act of 2016 “a better solution” than the two flawed amendments that failed despite her votes to pass both. (Ayotte’s campaign has not responded to Rolling Stone‘s request for comment; her Senate office directed us to her Monitor op-ed.)
Americans for Responsible Solutions, for its part, has endorsed the legislation. “We’re after one thing: the passage and enaction of sensible gun laws in this country,” Carusone says.