Kelly Ayotte in political pretzel over Donald Trump

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Story highlights

  • New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte has criticized Trump repeatedly but nonetheless said she will vote for him.
  • Raul A. Reyes: The person who looks the worst amid such partisan maneuvering is not Trump but Ayotte herself.

Raul A. Reyes, an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors, writes frequently for CNN Opinion. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)The contortions are starting to get uncomfortable. New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, locked in a tight bid for re-election, has criticized her party's nominee for President and says she will not endorse him. However, she does plan to vote for him. "While he has my vote, he doesn't have my endorsement," she said of Donald Trump this week. "I'm going to continue to focus on my race and getting out to people what I have done and getting results for the people in New Hampshire."

If all this sounds a bit confusing, that's because it is. Ayotte is attempting the near-impossible feat of trying to hold Trump at a distance while still supporting him. But voters will likely see right through this political act and punish her for not disavowing Trump. Sadly for Ayotte, the person who comes off looking the worst amid such partisan maneuvering is not Trump -- it is Ayotte herself.
    Raul Reyes
    According to Ayotte, there is a significant difference between voting for a candidate and endorsing him. "Everyone gets a vote, I do too," she said. But "an endorsement is when you are campaigning with someone." The distinction, however, can be difficult to discern. When a sitting senator publicly announces whom she is voting for, most people see that as an endorsement. Ayotte's hairsplitting about what would technically qualify as an endorsement seems disingenuous, not to mention insulting to voters' intelligence.
    More perplexing, though, is who Ayotte thinks she is fooling. Donald Trump won big in New Hampshire back in February, when he pulled in 35% of the Republican primary vote. Those voters will likely not take kindly to Ayotte's withholding her endorsement of the party's standard bearer, especially considering that Trump has endorsed her. Nor will moderates and independents in the state likely appreciate her refusal to denounce Trump's increasingly erratic presidential bid.
    What is glaring is the gap between who Ayotte says she is, and who she is revealing herself to be. Ayotte's website states that she "has distinguished herself as an independent and pragmatic leader" and that she "is a strong supporter of our men and women in uniform and their families." She sits on the Armed Services and Homeland Affairs and Governmental Affairs Committees. Yet Ayotte is willing to vote for a candidate who has engaged in a needless public squabble with a Gold Star Family, a candidate who has no coherent foreign policy ideology, and has jokingly (Trump said retroactively) invited Russia to hack into American computer systems.
    That does not sound much like an "independent and pragmatic leader." It also raises serious questions about Ayotte's judgment. Consider that if she truly cared about our military men and women and their families, she might stand with the 50 Republican officials who have warned that a Trump presidency would put our nation's security "at risk," or with the 40 top Republicans who are not supporting Trump for President.
    One of them, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post that "regrettably, his essential character appears to be fixed, and he [Trump] seems incapable of change or growth." Maine independent Angus King said in July that he could not vote for Trump "in good conscience." This leaves Ayotte as the only New England senator who supports Trump.
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    True, Ayotte has not been afraid to criticize Trump, such as when he questioned the impartiality of Judge Gonzalo Curiel (Ayotte called Trump's comments about the judge "offensive and wrong"). Still, just like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida -- who called Trump a "con artist" and is also voting for him -- Ayotte has boxed herself into a corner. If there are so many things that she doesn't like about Trump and she feels the need to condemn his remarks so frequently, then why is she voting for him?
    The obvious answer here is the right one: politics, pure and simple. Ayotte has apparently made the calculation that she needs to support Trump in order to win re-election. And this has been a strategic misfire, as the campaign of Ayotte's opponent, Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan, has had a field day tying her to Trump. No wonder Ayotte's re-election's is no sure thing; a July WMUR Granite State poll showed the two women in a close race, with Hassan holding a slight lead. Meanwhile, New England newspapers, both large (Boston Globe) and small (The Concord Monitor), have criticized Ayotte's continuing support of Trump. As the Globe noted, "With each passing day, [Ayotte's] support for Trump becomes more inexcusable."
    All this stands in sharp contrast to the national Democratic campaign. Despite Hillary Clinton's public perception as untrustworthy and allegations of ethical lapses, she has managed to unite her diverse party around the simple, unequivocal slogan: I'm With Her.
    In this tumultuous election year, few Republican leaders have been in an enviable position. The question of what to do about Trump has been perhaps the year's biggest test of character and personal integrity -- and Ayotte has failed it. You may parse it any way you like, Senator, but your vote is an endorsement.