CLAREMONT, N.H. (AP) — As her fellow Republicans gathered in Cleveland, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte was back home touting her work on a bipartisan bill intended to address opioid abuse.
There was no mention of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton or the presidential campaign fracas that began with the opening gavel of the Republican National Convention Monday and will continue through next week when Democrats gather for their convention in Philadelphia.
“I do have a re-election in November,” Ayotte told reporters. “As far as I can tell, the voters are here, not in Ohio.”
The first-term senator, who faces a re-election battle against Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, is backing Trump but is careful to define her position as “support but not endorse.” She maintains that her absence from the Republican National Convention has nothing to do with her party’s presumptive nominee, but she’s not alone in avoiding any association with Trump’s coronation and fraying Republican Party on display in the convention’s opening session Monday afternoon.
The list of noteworthy Republicans not venturing into Quicken Loans Arena is long, starting with two living former presidents, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush; former GOP presidential nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney; vanquished Trump primary rivals, including the host-state governor, John Kasich, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; senators like Ayotte; and governors and congressmen who have found other things to occupy their time.
Several elected delegates have bailed out on the convention, as well, a preview of the scene Monday when loud dissension besmirched the convention’s opening session as anti-Trump delegates demanded a floor vote on the nominating rules only to be quashed by Trump campaign officials and Republican National Committee authorities.
Among the sitting elected officials, the list of prominent Republican absentees seems to correspond with GOP elected officials who represent Democratic-leaning constituencies most likely to reject Trump.
Republican Govs. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Larry Hogan of Maryland won surprise victories in Democratic-controlled states in 2014. Neither is in Cleveland. Baker has even publicly declared he won’t vote for Trump.
“There’s a convention?” Hogan joked with reporters recently. “I’m focused on Maryland.” He said he’s been to five conventions, “I’m just not going to this one.” Just to underscore his point, he added, “No second thoughts.”
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who defeated Trump in his state’s presidential primary, is the first host governor in recent memory to skip convention floor proceedings. Kasich is keeping a busy schedule this week in Cleveland, greeting delegations and attending various events, but he’s avoiding the floor at Quicken Loans Arena. He told NBC News that Trump would “have to change everything that he says” before he would endorse the celebrity businessman.
Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort on Monday called Kasich “petulant” and “embarrassing.”
Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who also faces a tough re-election bid against former Gov. Ted Strickland, says he will appear on the convention floor this week, but will not be speaking from the podium — another notable departure from custom for any host-state senator.
It’s not uncommon for elected officials from one party to walk a fine line when they represent a constituency that generally leans to the other major party. Several former Democratic senators and governors tried to distance themselves from President Barack Obama heading into the 2014 elections — and they lost anyway.
And Trump certainly has high-profile Republican supporters, even from some battleground states. The speaker’s lineup Monday included Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, whose state opted twice for Obama.
But the absentee list nonetheless underscores a GOP identity crisis, and even some of those Republican officials who are attending are finding ways to express their skepticism about the presumptive nominee. Utah Sen. Mike Lee, among the most conservative figures on Capitol Hill, was on the floor Monday leading the group of delegates demanding a floor vote on rules, in a last-ditch effort to allow bound delegates to vote for a nominee other than Trump, regardless of how their states had voted in primaries or caucuses.
Jeb Bush, once considered the favorite for the nomination by party insiders and national media, explained in a Washington Post op-ed last week his continued opposition to Trump’s candidacy. “I do not believe Donald Trump reflects the principles or inclusive legacy of the Republican Party,” Bush wrote. “And I sincerely hope he doesn’t represent its future.”
Democrats certainly relish the discord. The Clinton campaign on Sunday sent reporters a mock GOP schedule of speakers, listing time slots and several names of elected Republicans — only the names, all of officials who are skipping the convention, are crossed out. Still, Democratic strategists say privately that they do not know just how Trump will affect down-ballot races.
Meanwhile, Ayotte used her Monday outing to continue her work fighting drug abuse. At a recovery center, she took notes and asked questions of law enforcement officers, health care professionals and people in recovery.
“I’m glad to be here because this is, number 1, where I need to be listening,” Ayotte said after the event.
Asked by reporters about Trump, she said, “I think that voters will judge each person individually, and I have great confidence in that.”
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Barrow reported from Atlanta. Follow Ronayne and Barrow on Twitter at https://twitter.com/kronayne and https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP.