A rising Republican lost her seat in the Trump era. Now she’s trying a comeback.

In 2016, Kelly Ayotte was a rising star in the GOP. In 2017, she was a former senator.

Now, the New Hampshire Republican is seeking to return to a different political world than the one she left, as she mounts a bid to become the Republican nominee for governor of her state. One of the biggest differences between then and now: her posture toward Donald Trump.

And while Ayotte spent the last seven-plus years out of office, she stayed connected in the political and policy spheres before her next opportunity — netting millions on corporate boards, writing on state and national issues in newspapers and, early in the Trump administration, advising one of his Supreme Court picks through the Senate confirmation process.

In 2016, Ayotte was nearing the end of her first term in the Senate, establishing herself as a key GOP voice on national security, at the same time as Trump’s unexpected political rise.

Like many Republicans at the time, Ayotte initially backed Trump but then withdrew her support just weeks before Election Day in 2016, after the “Access Hollywood” video of Trump emerged, in which he spoke about touching women without their consent.

“I cannot and will not support a candidate for president who brags about degrading and assaulting women,” Ayotte said at the time. She went on to narrowly lose her re-election bid to now-Sen. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, as Trump also narrowly lost the state.

Now, Ayotte is back on the national political stage, running for governor. And, she’s endorsed Trump, offering a full-throated rebuke of President Joe Biden. Her Republican primary opponent, Chuck Morse, endorsed the former president earlier in the 2024 race as they both seek to succeed retiring GOP Gov. Chris Sununu.

Asked if Ayotte had always planned to run for governor in the future when she was still in the Senate, a former aide told NBC News, “She was very committed to citizens of the Granite State during her time as senator, and I think it’s a natural succession for her to choose to run for governor.”

The path from then to now

After the end of her Senate term, Ayotte stuck around briefly in Washington, serving as an adviser to then-Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch during his Senate confirmation process before she returned to New Hampshire.

But in the intervening years between leaving the Senate and running for governor, Ayotte spent her time in the private sector and made over $2.1 million in cash fees serving on corporate boards between 2017 and 2023, according to an NBC News review of corporate proxy statements. The figure does not include any stock she was awarded while serving on the corporate boards, which could also total in the millions, and it includes only reported data from public companies on whose boards Ayotte served, like Blackstone, Bloom Energy, Boston Properties, News Corp. and Caterpillar, not private companies where she was also reported to have served on boards, like Blink Health and Citronics.

At different points in 2023, Ayotte owned over 16,000 shares of Blackstone stock and over 7,000 shares of stock in Boston Properties, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings. In January 2024, she also reported owning over 50,000 shares of News Corp. stock.

Ayotte also served in advisory roles for several other companies, like Chubb Insurance, Microsoft and Revision Military.

It is not at all unusual for former politicians to join corporate boards after leaving office.

Republican candidate for Governor of New Hampshire Kelly Ayotte
Kelly Ayotte, pictured at the state Republican Party’s First in the Nation Leadership Summit in Nashua, N.H., in 2023, is running for governor of the Granite State.Brian Snyder / Reuters file

According to one study by researchers at Harvard and Boston universities called “Capitol Gains: The Returns to Elected Office from Corporate Board Directorships,” almost half of all former senators and governors serve on at least one board after leaving office.

The study also estimated that “winning a Senate or gubernatorial election increases the probability of later serving on a corporate board by roughly 30%.”

“There’s actually a causal relationship between winning elections and getting these board seats,” Maxwell Palmer, an associate professor of political science at Boston University who co-authored the paper, told NBC News.

In a statement, Ayotte told NBC News, “After leaving the Senate, I had two important priorities: first, being more present with my husband and two children as I couldn’t be due to the Senate schedule, and second, putting my life experience to work helping New Hampshire and American businesses grow, compete, and succeed.”

She added, “Over that time, I gained a great deal of experience working with companies at the highest level. This, in addition to my many years of public service as a prosecutor and attorney general, round out my skillset and have prepared me to lead our state forward and ensure New Hampshire remains safe, prosperous, and free.”

Beyond serving on boards in the six years between the end of her Senate term and the launch of her gubernatorial campaign, Ayotte also kept contributing to policy debates.

As a member of the Afghanistan Study Group, building on an area of focus for her as a senator, she co-authored a report in 2021 urging the Biden administration to postpone the deadline for the required withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

She also authored a letter to the editor in The Washington Post in 2019 about the GOP’s plans to tackle climate change.

In the letter, Ayotte critiqued a recent article that she said “failed to take into account several examples of recent Republican leadership on advancing clean-energy solutions. As a former senator and strong public advocate with a track record of advancing policy in the clean-energy space, I feel compelled to set the record straight and give credit where it is due.”

When she wrote the letter, Ayotte was also serving as an adviser to Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, a right-of-center nonprofit aimed at pushing Republican politicians to advocate for clean energy solutions.

She also zoomed in on more local issues in the press.

In 2021, Ayotte also wrote an op-ed in the New Hampshire Union-Leader criticizing Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess for seeking to “strip the [police] department of … independent oversight and seize control.”

At the time, Nashua’s Police Commission was the last in the state whose commissioners were still appointed by the governor, rather than locally.

Ayotte’s allies are quick to point out that despite her service on corporate boards and in various political roles since leaving the Senate, she’s also sought to return to her New Hampshire community in more average ways.

One person who used to work with Ayotte told NBC News, “Since leaving the Senate, it’s not unusual to see her at the Penguin Plunge,” or in the carpool line at her children’s school, where she serves on the board.

“They’re just, you know, they’re just regular New Hampshire parents,” the person added.

Now, Ayotte is trying to climb back onto the political ladder and lead the state.