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

Exclusive: CONCORD, N.H. — Former Sen. Kelly Ayotte, running in one of the nation’s most crucial gubernatorial races this year, has made clear her support for former President Trump’s bid to retake the White House.

“Under Joe Biden, prices are going up, safety is going down, there’s no question that things are worse than they were under President Trump,” Ayotte charged in a national interview with Fox News Digital. “I support President Trump because I believe we need to change the direction of our country.”

Support for the presumptive GOP presidential nominee would seem like a given for almost any Republican running in 2024, thanks to his overwhelming influence within the party, but it is even more important for Ayotte.

Ayotte, a former state attorney general and rising senator with a strong national security profile, was a rising Republican star when she ran for reelection in 2016.

Republican governor criticizes Biden on energy issues

Republican gubernatorial candidate and former Sen. Kelly Ayotte was surrounded by supporters as she filed her candidacy papers at the Secretary of State’s office in Concord, New Hampshire, on Thursday. (Fox News – Paul Steinhauser)

But in the run up to the 2016 election, she withdrew her support for Trump over the “Access Hollywood” controversy, in which Trump made extremely vulgar comments in a video years ago about sexually assaulting women without their consent.

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

Ayotte lost reelection to then-Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan by just over 1,000 votes.

But in New Hampshire, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton beat Trump by less than 3,000 votes, giving Ayotte a slight edge.

Trump supports this Democrat-backed Republican who criticizes the former president

Before retiring full-time to New Hampshire, Ayotte stayed in Washington for a while after her term ended, helping guide then-Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, through the successful Senate confirmation process.

After leaving the Senate, Mr. Ayotte enjoyed lucrative careers as a director and adviser to both public and private companies, including News Corp., the former parent company of Fox News.

During that time, Ayotte also followed New Hampshire politics closely, occasionally attending Republican events in the state, and continued to write opinion pieces on major state, national, and international issues.

Sununu, a former senator, announced his gubernatorial run nearly a year ago after popular Republican Gov. Chris Sununu announced he would not seek reelection in 2024 for an unprecedented fifth two-year term.

Ayotte remained neutral in the New Hampshire primary, the first in the nation to endorse Trump for president, but endorsed him in early March, shortly after he secured the Republican nomination.

“He’s going to fix the disaster on our southern border, and we’re seeing the same disaster on our northern border, and he’s going to do that to keep our country safe,” Ayotte told Fox News on Thursday.

She also said Trump “has a different vision for freedom and taxes” and that Biden “is, unfortunately, a real disaster for this country and change is needed.”

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

She is the polling and fundraising leader vying for the Republican nomination in New Hampshire’s early September primary, but she has come under attack from her rival, longtime state Senate President Chuck Morse, who finished second in a crowded field in the 2022 Republican primary for the U.S. Senate.

Chuck Morse is attacking Kelly Ayotte in the 2024 New Hampshire Republican gubernatorial nomination race for her conservative credentials.

Republican gubernatorial candidate and former New Hampshire Senate President Chuck Morse visits the Secretary of State’s office in Concord, New Hampshire on June 5 to file his candidacy and shake hands with supporters. (Chuck Morse Gubernatorial Campaign)

“I believe there are significant differences between me and Kelly Ayotte,” Morse said in a state legislative filing last week. “I started as a conservative, I finished as a conservative as Senate President, and I promise you I will be a conservative Governor.”

“Kerry didn’t do that when he went to Washington.”

Hours before she arrived to file her paperwork, Morse’s campaign memo asked which candidate Ayotte would emerge as: “Kelly, the so-called conservative candidate, or the moderate establishment with whom she has always governed.”

The former Republican senator is now running for governor in a key battleground state.

Governor Ayotte fired back Thursday, emphasizing that “I am a staunch common sense conservative and I intend to continue this state on the path that Governor Sununu has taken, and that there are brighter days ahead.”

Pointing at Morse, she then claimed, “I’ve known Chuck a long time and this is a sad way for him to end his political career.”

Morse fired back in a statement to Fox News, saying, “Governor Chris Sununu followed the path blazed by conservative leaders like me, but Kelly’s record is riddled with poor policy choices and [Barack] “I have endorsed Mr. Obama over 260 times. This state needs a leader who will face the tough questions, not a leader who shys away from accountability. I am here, ready to answer to the people and keep moving New Hampshire forward. If Mr. Kerry can’t face up to his own record, how can he lead?”

Morse, who was not particularly close to Trump when he first ran for president, endorsed him in December and has publicly voiced his support for Trump, for months questioning Ayotte’s support of the former president.

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Trump has endorsed dozens of candidates in the fierce Republican primaries across the country, but has remained neutral in the New Hampshire gubernatorial race.

Asked whether she would accept Trump’s endorsement and campaign alongside him in New Jersey, Ayotte told Fox News she was “certainly grateful” for the former president’s backing. “If anyone is willing to offer their support, I encourage them to do so,” she said.

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

Ayotte also praised Sununu for remaining neutral so far in the New Hampshire gubernatorial race.

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

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu spoke to Fox News in an interview on June 3rd at a Republican Governors Association press conference at an oil refinery in Chalmette, Louisiana. (Fox News – Paul Steinhauser)

“The path that Gov. Sununu has set for us is a path to prosperity and greater freedom, and I want to see him continue on that path,” she said. “I’m grateful for his leadership and the work he’s done, and I look forward to continuing his success for our state.”

Ayoted added: “He and I meet all the time, we meet on the campaign trail. We’ve known each other for a long time. I respect him and we have a great relationship.”

In remarks to reporters in an interview with Fox News and in filings, Ayotte also aimed criticism at the two leading Democratic candidates running for governor, former Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig and Executive Council Member Cinde Warmington.

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

Since launching her campaign, Ayotte has targeted her Democratic rivals rather than New Hampshire’s more progressive southern neighbor, which has long been a target for New Hampshire’s conservative base.

In a statement, the Democratic Governors Association called Ayotte “a self-serving politician who will say and do anything to win, even going so far as to lie to the people of New Hampshire about her dangerous record of restricting reproductive freedom.”

When asked about her stance on abortion in filing the lawsuit, Ayotte stressed that she would uphold New Hampshire law, which allows abortion up to 24 weeks into a pregnancy.

“As governor, I will uphold that law. I will not change it. Right now they’re misleading the women of New Hampshire by making them think something different is going to happen. I want women to know what our law is and I will uphold it and not change it,” she said.

Ayotte also said she was “vowed to veto any restrictions” on current state law.

Get the latest 2024 election campaign updates, exclusive interviews and more on Fox News Digital’s election hub.

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