CONCORD, N.H. — The national debate over gun control has spilled over into New Hampshire where Sen. Kelly Ayotte is defending her vote against stricter gun laws and deriding the Mayors Against Illegal Guns group that is attacking her as carpetbaggers who don’t understand her state’s voters.
At stake is whether gun control groups can sway the half-dozen or so lawmakers needed to push expanded background checks for gun purchases through the Senate — and Mrs. Ayotte’s re-election race in 2016 is shaping up as a key test.
The proxy war broke out here weeks ago when MAIG, an advocacy group with New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg as co-chairman, started targeting Mrs. Ayotte in a six-figure ad buy that ran in the Manchester, N.H., and Boston media markets. The group ramped up the pressure over the weekend, releasing another television spot saying Mrs. Ayotte didn’t step up when her vote was needed.
“Ayotte’s vote helped defeat a modest measure to prevent the seriously mentally ill from purchasing firearms,” the narrator says in the 30-second spot. “Now Ayotte says she is for strengthening background checks, but when it counted she was a key vote to kill it and that makes New Hampshire less safe.”
But Mrs. Ayotte and her allies, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida’s political action committee, have returned fire, saying that MAIG is misleading voters and that the junior New Hampshire senator has voted to beef up the current National Instant Criminal Background Check System that federally licensed dealers must use.
“They are running ads basically saying that I voted against background checks, which is false,” Mrs. Ayotte said last week. “I supported legislation that would have improved out background check system. These are clearly out-of-state interests coming into New Hampshire spending a lot of money, and I think at the end of the day people will sort through these types of false attacks, they will examine the issue, and I trust the people of New Hampshire to make their own judgments.”
The back-and-forth comes after the Senate shot down a bipartisan proposal last month that would have expanded gun-purchase background checks to sales online and at gun shows.
Mrs. Ayotte joined 40 of her fellow Republicans and five Democrats in opposing the plan, which was the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s response to last year’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that left 26 people dead.
Mrs. Ayotte, meanwhile, backed another proposal, which also failed in the Senate, that made changes to the background check system, provided resources to help address mental health and school safety, and addressed gun trafficking and straw purchasing.
Since the vote, some polls have suggested that Mrs. Ayotte’s unfavorable ratings have ticked up, and found that she holds the lowest approval rating of any statewide official.
Andrew E. Smith, political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, said that Democrats — at the national and state level — are hoping to put a dent in Mrs. Ayotte’s image ahead of her 2016 re-election campaign “because she is an attractive conservative women from New England.”
“The idea is kneecap her right now,” Mr. Smith said, adding that Democrats are basically saying, “We are not going to do too much damage, but you won’t be able to walk very well.”
James M. Demers, a longtime Democrat consultant and New Hampshire co-chairman of President Obama’s presidential campaign, said Tuesday that some voters are aware of Mrs. Ayotte’s opposition to expanded background checks, thanks to the MAIG ads.
“I saw one this morning, and I do think it is having an effect,” Mr. Demers said. “A lot of people, particularly the independent voters here, are asking why she voted the way she did. It seems like it is having a big effect.”
Michael Biundo, the campaign manager for Republican Rick Santorum’s 2012 presidential campaign, said it is politically savvy for Democrats to go after Mrs. Ayotte because it diverts attention from the Democrats up for re-election in 2014 — a list that includes Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. But, he said, he doesn’t think the attack sticks.
Tom Rath, a New Hampshire GOP strategist and former adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, said Mrs. Ayotte remains popular with the state’s law enforcement officials and that the senator has plenty of time to respond before she has to worry about re-election.
“Typically a candidate gets in trouble when they do something contrary to what they said they are going to do, and the vote Sen. Ayotte cast is very consistent with what her position has been,” Mr. Rath said. “So, I don’t think anything changes much in the way of poll numbers, certainly not any change that has any impact on 2016.”