DAVID GREENE, HOST:
After any contentious debate in Washington, it's often interesting to see how a lawmaker is welcomed home, depending on how he or she voted. Some of the senators who voted down bipartisan gun control legislation last month are taking heat in the aftermath of December's mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the state of Connecticut. The bill would have expanded background checks, and the only New England senator who opposed it was New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte. NPR's David Welna traveled to her state and sent this report.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: If you turned on a TV this morning in New Hampshire, there's a good chance you'd see a new ad sponsored by a gun control group New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is backing, Mayors Against Illegal Guns. It goes after Senator Kelly Ayotte, a former state attorney general who often reminds voters of all the criminals she's prosecuted.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Senator Ayotte is giving criminals a pass.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's shameful.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Police support background checks. Why didn't she side with them?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: New Hampshire voters will remember this.
WELNA: And if you tuned into AM radio, you might hear another ad sponsored by a group founded by former congresswoman and shooting victim Gabby Giffords. It accuses Ayotte of ignoring the will of 89 percent of New Hampshire residents. But the senator's defenders have also filled the airwaves. The NRA's running an ad that praises Ayotte for opposing what it calls misguided gun control laws. There's also this ad from the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Gun owners and hunters, say thank you to our Senator Kelly Ayotte. Thank you for standing up to political pressure from a big city mayor who thinks he knows what's best for the rest of us.
WELNA: Beyond the dueling ads, polls show Ayotte's approval ratings dropping by as much as 15 points since her vote against the background checks. Political scientist Christopher Galdieri of St. Anselm College says Ayotte's gotten a fair amount of blowback from that vote.
CHRISTOPHER GALDIERI: I don't think I'd go so far as to say she's in trouble but I think she could be looking more vulnerable than she was a few months ago.
WELNA: Ayotte's also run into tough questions about that vote during three town hall meetings this week.
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WELNA: In this small rural town of Fitzwilliam in southwestern New Hampshire, hundreds of people turned out for Ayotte's final town hall of the week. One of her backers was holding a sign outside the meeting.
LINDA TWOMBLY: It says: Thank you, Kelly, we support you.
WELNA: Linda Twombly is president of the Republican Women in Nashua. She struggles a bit when asked why she defends Ayotte's vote against the so-called Manchin-Toomey Background Check Amendment.
TWOMBLY: The Manchin-Toomey was just a feel-good legislation. It was not going to correct the situation that is the mental health issues.
WELNA: A man standing across from Twombly is holding a very different sign.
STEVEN HUMPHRIES: It says: New Hampshire gun owner disgusted with Ayotte.
WELNA: Retired truck driver Steven Humphries says he's owned just about every kind of gun you could think of and finds the background checks that Ayotte opposes actually quite reasonable.
HUMPHRIES: She has used the reasoning that they're inconvenient. And as a person who's been through background checks to buy guns, I can tell you the only thing a background check does is give you five more minutes to go shop for another gun.
WELNA: It's standing room only when Ayotte kicks off her town hall by taking a bow to reality.
SENATOR KELLY AYOTTE: I know that many of you are here because of the recent legislation on the (unintelligible) on how to address violence and particularly gun violence.
WELNA: One of those people is retired lawyer John Keenan of Winchester. He rises to ask Ayotte how she could have voted the way she did.
JOHN KEENAN: It doesn't make sense to me. What is wrong with universal background checks?
WELNA: Ayotte's reply is friendly but unyielding.
AYOTTE: On this issue, I'd describe it for you but I will tell you in terms of a universal background check, as it's been framed, I have a lot of concerns about that leading to a registry that will create a privacy situation for lawful firearms owners.
WELNA: In fact, the measure specifically prohibits a gun registry. Later, Keenan uses two letters to describe Ayotte's answer: BS.
KEENAN: I am a Republican and I was at her inauguration. I've been to a number of her parties, picnics, whatever. I know her children. It's like I said to her, I know your children but they're no different than the 20 in Newtown. Come on, do something to advance it a little bit.
WELNA: Keenan says at least for now Ayotte's lost his vote. St. Anselm's Galdieri says it's not clear what such sentiments might mean for Ayotte in 2016, the year she's up for reelection.
GALDIERI: I think the question is whether the folks who want to see stricter gun controls can maintain their momentum. Can they take the fact that the people who disapprove of this vote are angry today in May of 2013 and turn that into something that gets them to rally and volunteer and vote and donate money in 2016? And I think that's really uncharted territory.
WELNA: Meanwhile, the ads keep playing here - both pro and con. David Welna, NPR News, Manchester, New Hampshire. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.