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The Political Suicide of Kelly Ayotte

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Senator Kelly Ayotte this week became the poster child for callousness in her confrontation with Erica Lafferty, the daughter of the slain principal of Sandy Hook. In a single stroke, Ayotte committed perhaps the swiftest and most devastating act of political suicide in recent history. Sure, she is likely to serve out her term which ends in 2016. The chances of a successful recall are slim, and she can expect lots of support from the NRA and the gun industry. But, as a practical matter, her political career is over.

Her Senate colleagues are likely to have very little do with her -- keep your eyes peeled for a photo of a fellow Senator giving her a big hug or headlining a fund-raiser. Ayotte is headed for the political outback -- on the bullet train. It's not simply that she voted against background checks for gun purchases -- which the overwhelming majority of her constituents support. It's that she had the temerity to lecture Ms. Lafferty, in mostly patronizing tones, all on national television.

Even if Senator Ayotte cast her vote in good faith, I am pretty sure she didn't want to become the poster child for the NRA and the gun industry. In one fell swoop, she has singled herself out as a major spokesperson on a highly emotional issue on which the vast majority of her constituents -- along with a sizeable majority of Americans -- disagree with her. Even worse, she has firmly ensconced herself inside the fringe of the Republican right, who are holding virtual parades in her honor at this very moment. This is decidedly not where a New Hampshire politician wants to be.

I am very curious -- along with lots of others in the political world -- about who gave her the political advice that led to this vote. Certainly, it may have been a matter of deep conviction (I am giving Ayotte the benefit of the doubt here), but surely some political calculus came into play. Who in their right mind would advise a politician to vote against the majority of her constituents on an emotional issue like the mass slaying of children? Ayotte can blabber all she wants about mental health concerns (since when have Republicans become concerned about mental health issues?), but this isn't really about mental health or background checks, for that matter.

This vote was about children gunned down at an elementary school and, by extension, about the larger issue of gun violence in our country. Senators who voted for background checks were signaling to the public that gun violence was a serious enough issue to regulate gun purchases in some small measure. Senators who voted against the bill were signaling that gun rights trumped any concerns about gun violence. By the way, this was exactly the way Erica Lafferty phrased her question to Ayotte when she asked whether the burden of her mother's murder wasn't greater than the burden of background checks for gun purchasers.

I suppose that Ayotte's political advisors may have made the argument that she needed to curry favor with her base -- the fifteen percent of Republican voters who vote in primaries and tend to be more hard right. But that would be a foolish argument, since her task as an elected Senator is to court more moderate voters -- in other words, the bulk of her constituents. Perhaps Ayotte was afraid of the NRA. That would also be a mistake, since it is unlikely that the NRA or the gun industry can rescue her from the onslaught she now faces.

Not only is Ayotte's political future in the toilet, but her ongoing effectiveness in the Senate is likely to be nil. She will certainly be shunned by all but the most Red-State senators, and her media image is permanently trashed. There is very little positive good that she can do for her constituents in New Hampshire as she fights off the deluge of criticism from around the country and inside her state. Late-night comedians and pundits will feast on her decaying political carcass. Perhaps it might be time to consider resignation? Give it a couple of months, then withdraw gracefully.

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