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Scott Brown Has a Kelly Ayotte Problem

Allison Shelley/Getty Images

When the vast majority of Senate Republicans—including cosponsors—successfully filibustered a mild, bipartisan energy efficiency bill last week, citing dubious procedural objections, reporters smelled a rat, and Huffington Post quickly identified former Massachusetts senator, and current New Hampshire Senate hopeful Scott Brown as the source of the odor.

It turns out the bill's Democratic author is incumbent New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen, and Brown wanted to deny his likely opponent a legislative accomplishment to tout in her re-election campaign. So he went to work on his former colleagues, and they overwhelmingly did his bidding. But there was one particularly notable exception: New Hampshire's other senator, Republican Kelly Ayotte.

It was a free vote for Ayotte. The fix was already in. And she voted with Shaheen, against Brown's wishes, anyhow.

This naturally raised questions about Ayotte's political calculation, but when Huffington Post reporter and D.C. bureau chief Ryan Grim asked her about the rift, and wrote about it, the New Hampshire GOP decided to paper it over by trashing Grim. Ayotte acknowledged that Brown had contacted her about the bill, but denied that he'd "lobbied" her, which seemed to undermine Grim's contention that he'd pressured her one way or another. And it did…if you were born yesterday.

There are two things going on here, one of which concerns the specific issue of the energy efficiency bill, the other of which speaks to the vagaries of New Hampshire politics. And the mystery to be solved is whether or how tightly they're linked.

Republicans obviously want to downplay any differences between Brown and Ayotte. So if he didn't lobby her, then she didn't cross him, and everything's hunky dory. This explains the attack on Grim.

But "it depends on your definition of lobbying" isn't a winning line of attack historically, nor is it an effective diversion from the existence of intra-Republican tensions in New Hampshire.

Setting aside the childish, metaphysical dispute over what constitutes "lobbying," the fact remains that Scott Brown wanted his former colleagues, including Ayotte, to do something within their power, and she didn't do it. If I called up a rich friend and told him I could really use $1000, and she turned around and lit $1000 on fire, the question of whether my initial imposition amounted to "lobbying" would be rather beside the point.

The real question is whether there's more to the story than a narrow disagreement over legislative tactics. Absent an unlikely, candid admission, we'll never know for sure. But there are plenty of logical reasons for Ayotte to part ways with Brown on this and other issues, even if it makes it harder for him to beat Shaheen.

If Brown wins in November, there's a decent chance he'll be the 51st Republican vote. That would be good for Republicans, and thus good for Ayotte. But that's a pretty roundabout analysis. In a bare-knuckled, every-man-for-himself sense, aligning with Brown and antagonizing Shaheen carries a lot of risk for Ayotte. She'll be in-cycle in 2016. If she runs afoul of Shaheen and Shaheen wins, then she can expect the same basic treatment in return when she's up for reelection. If she runs afoul of Shaheen and Shaheen loses, then she's created a perfectly qualified, viable opponent for herself in a presidential election year.

Then there's the fact that Brown's battling the trust deficit every carpetbagger faces, and Ayotte might not want to align too closely with him—especially before his primary is behind him.

At a less cynical level, Ayotte and Shaheen have an existing relationship. On the level of gender politics you can understand why Ayotte might not want to join a plot to sabotage Shaheen's legislation when her vote isn't actually necessary. And so on.

I can't claim to know which if any of these factors motivated Ayotte. But it's a worthy line of inquiry, and there are better ways for the New Hampshire GOP to address it than smearing reporters who are willing to assert the blindingly obvious, even when politicians try to spin it out of existence.