She was meeting Benson, a former tech CEO known for his intensity, because she was up for the job of legal counsel, one of the most senior positions on his staff. At the end of their talk, Ayotte said she would be thrilled to become the governor’s counsel. “But what I’d really like,” she added, “is to be your attorney general.”
Ayotte, 45, whoops when she recounts the story, recalling that the governor was visibly taken aback when she made the pitch to become one of the most powerful figures in New Hampshire. “But I also think he appreciated the chutzpah,” she adds. Her confidence that day arguably opened the door to her political career. Ayotte—the sole member of the New Hampshire five who has not been defeated at the ballot box—says she didn’t plot her life with an eye toward future elections. “I don’t think that every person wakes up when they are 18 and says, ‘I’m going to run for office,’ ” she says. “It’s just, you end up on a path, in a series of positions where you realize that being involved in the community or in public service is what is rewarding to you...That is how I ended up on the path I’m on.” Once she did identify public life as her métier, Ayotte was directed and tenacious in realizing her goal, as her interview with Benson attests. “You can’t be hesitant to let people know what you’re interested in,” the senator says, adding that it’s advice she often gives to young women.
Ayotte did get the legal-counsel job, and just a year and a half later she was taking the oath as the state’s first female attorney general while seven months pregnant with her first child. As AG, she defended a law requiring parental notification for minors seeking abortions, taking the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. She also successfully sought the death penalty in the killing of a police officer. Her track record positioned her to become the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2010 when Judd Gregg—the man who in 1980 beat Annie Kuster’s mother in the GOP primary—retired. Gregg personally recruited her to run for his seat.
This was another break with the past: Historically, male senators haven’t identified women as their potential replacements, notes Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth. “Women had to be the insurgents,” she says. “They didn’t have the establishment figure clearing the way for them.” Jessica Grounds, executive director of the group Running Start—which aims to increase the number of young women in elective office—says the differences between New Hampshire’s governor, Hassan, and its junior senator, Ayotte, dovetail with a generational split she’s seen in her work. “Sometimes older women can be initially hesitant to make their candidacies,” says Grounds. “The younger ones tend to be more directed in making it happen.”
Gregg wasn’t the only high-profile person who got behind Ayotte’s campaign: In the midst of a very competitive GOP primary contest, Sarah Palin endorsed Ayotte, dubbing her “one tough Granite grizzly.”
Ayotte won the GOP showdown only narrowly, but she took the general election handily, making her the only female member of the incoming 2010 Senate class and, at 42, the third youngest of the freshmen. Since arriving in the Senate, she has become a prominent face for the GOP, in large part because she stands out in the Republican Senate caucus, which is mostly male and much older than she.
On the day of her swearing-in ceremony, Ayotte was reminded of the unusual figure she cut in her new place of work. When she slipped into the Senate chamber and sat at the desk she would soon officially be assigned to, a guard marched toward her. The desks, he told her sternly, were for senators only. “Really?” Ayotte remembers saying to him. “Because that is my name [on the placard]. And I worked pretty hard to get here.”
They all did, she says now of her fellow female New Hampshirites in the House, the Senate and the governor’s mansion. “It didn’t fall into our laps.”