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Scott Brown’s Balancing Act

It's not easy being Brown in a blue state.

By From the May 2012 issue

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On the dais at Boston Marriott Copley Place, Ann Romney beamed as she rattled off the names of all the politicians who had helped her husband on Super Tuesday. She didn’t forget the home crowd. “And finally, thank you Massachusetts,” the commonwealth’s former first lady exclaimed, singling out “our senator, Scott Brown” for praise.

Brown, of course, wasn’t there. Even in Boston, a Mitt Romney for president rally is likely to draw a partisan Republican crowd. As a senator who probably needs to win two-thirds of independent voters this fall in a state the incumbent Democratic president is likely to carry, Brown didn’t need to be seen on stage while Romney was throwing out red meat about the flaws and failures of Barack Obama.

That’s not to say that Brown, who endorsed Romney, wasn’t happy to see the former governor do well. Romney, who won the semi-open Massachusetts primary with 72 percent of the vote, is the only Republican nominee who can keep the presidential contest in the Bay State close enough for Brown to realistically win enough ticket-splitters to hold on to his Senate seat. It’s a difficult balancing act that Brown has to maintain in a tough political environment, but so far he hasn’t stumbled.

Much has changed since Brown—hyperbolically dubbed “the Scott heard ’round the world”—captured Ted Kennedy’s old Senate seat in a January 2010 special election. He was the first Republican to win statewide since Romney eight years earlier, the first GOP member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation since January 1997, and the state’s first Republican senator since Edward Brooke’s second term expired in 1979 after he lost re-election to Paul Tsongas.

Two years ago, Brown caught both state and national Democrats almost completely by surprise. By the time they realized Kennedy’s heir apparent Martha Coakley was in trouble, it was too late. A full court press by a who’s who of Democrats ranging from Bill Clinton to John Kerry couldn’t put Humpty back together again.

Brown was also a national conservative cause, as people donated money far and wide to see a Republican sitting in Kennedy’s seat. Brown campaigned openly as the 41st vote against Obamacare. His election would not only restore the Republicans’ power to filibuster the dreaded health care bill, but also prove that the legislation was unpopular even in Kennedy country. He became a Tea Party cause célèbre, and the burgeoning grassroots movement saw his upset victory as a sign of their national potential in November 2010.

Now Brown is the incumbent, running in plain sight of Democratic operatives nationally and in Massachusetts. Representing one of the country’s bluest states, he sits high atop their target lists. After a series of feints to the center, Brown is no longer a national Tea Party favorite. One local Tea Party group, in fact, hoped to find a Republican primary challenger. Brown has been equally offhand with the movement, downplaying its role in his election and declining to appear at some Tea Party rallies.

This time around, likely Democratic nominee Elizabeth Warren is a national progressive darling. She is more a symbol of Occupy Wall Street than Brown ever was the Tea Party. She is attracting the out-of-state political contributions and hauling in more money than Brown in some quarters of fundraising. And Warren radiates the kind of energy that once animated the Brown campaign.

Despite all this, Scott Brown still has a fighting chance. After early polls showed Warren pulling ahead, four of the five next major surveys found Brown leading by as many as nine points. In March, the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling had Warren back out in front by five points. But even that poll, which sampled registered rather than likely voters, showed Brown with a double-digit lead among independents, pulling 17 percent of Democrats, and pitching a Curt Schilling-like shutout among Republicans.

BROWN HAD TRIED to demonstrate his independence from the national GOP in order to cultivate unaffiliated voters and soft Democrats. During the lame-duck congressional session, he broke with conservatives by supporting the New Start Treaty and an end to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy concerning gays in the military. Brown was a member of the Army National Guard, had advocated for veterans in the Massachusetts legislature, and had mostly sided with hawks during his special election campaign, so both votes were considered a surprise—and a betrayal by his more conservative supporters.

Yet Brown also voted to retain the Bush tax cuts and opposed the DREAM Act, which he labeled amnesty for illegal immigrants. He sided with social liberals on federal funding for Planned Parenthood, saying a GOP plan to defund the organization—which is the nation’s top abortion provider but also performs women’s health services—“goes too far.” Brown then joined social conservatives in opposing the contraceptive mandate the Obama Department of Health and Human Services imposed on religious institutions.

This triangulation has won Brown enemies on both sides. For his opposition to the HHS mandate, the Boston Phoenix blasted him as “Scott Brown, crazy person.” The liberal alt-weekly editorialized that Brown had joined “the Republican cult against birth control” and the “vast and growing right-wing war on women.” Meanwhile, conservative activists complained that Brown was too liberal.

“There’s enough of an underground movement in the Tea Party movement as seeing him as not being conservative enough,” Christen Varley, then president of the Greater Boston Tea Party, told the Boston Globe (which also occasionally reads like a liberal alt-weekly), in December 2010. “There probably will be multiple people who attempt to run against him.” And while no such primary challenge has materialized, Brown’s vote for the Dodd-Frank financial reforms—arguably his biggest transgression against conservative principles—will almost certainly keep him from receiving major national Tea Party support this fall.

But the fallout from his juggling hasn’t been entirely negative. Several polls have shown Brown to have high approval ratings among independents, now a plurality of Massachusetts’ registered voters. There is a reason he is hovering at around 90 percent support from Republicans while also getting a larger crossover vote than Warren: he has demonstrated finesse at dealing with controversial issues.

Consider contraceptives, where he has simultaneously opposed the HHS mandate and criticized Rush Limbaugh for his comments about Sandra Fluke. “Brown’s stance on birth control might still hurt him among women, who are important swing voters in Massachusetts,” writes political journalist David Bernstein (in the Phoenix of all places). “But he is probably helping himself among conservative Catholic Democrats, who were key to his victory two years ago.”

Brown’s office has been tireless at constituent services, even retaining some of Kennedy’s staffers who helped with immigration issues. (That kind of work frankly had more to do with Kennedy’s political durability than his liberal voting record.) He is a dogged door-knocker and practitioner of retail politics. Brown’s press releases emphasize the local (remember Tip O’Neill’s adage?) and the non-ideological.

Elizabeth Warren is none of those things. She is a defender of the “99 percent.” A Harvard professor who advised President Obama on financial regulation, she was a liberal favorite to become the first person to run the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Obama declined because he didn’t think he could get her confirmed and ended up having to ram through Richard Cordray in a disputed recess appointment. (Brown, ironically, was a rare Republican who voted for the CFPB’s creation and Cordray’s confirmation.)

Warren is running against Wall Street and economic inequality. That’s not exactly a losing message in Massachusetts. But like Coakley, she’s an imperfect populist. Warren supported the $700 billion bank bailout, which she oversaw for the Obama administration. She’s also willing to take campaign donations from bailout recipients, though she claims such contributions flow purely from those who “want reform.” She told the Boston Herald, “There are people on Wall Street who actually believe we need better rules, fairer rules.” The Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney had a somewhat different take: “The way you prove you want reform? You give money to Warren.”

BROWN AND WARREN arrived at an agreement to discourage third party ads that take a side in the Massachusetts Senate race. Brown has twice had to make donations to a charity of Warren’s choice because business groups have ostensibly violated the pledge. He most recently cut a check for $34,545 because of a series of commercials by the American Petroleum Institute. But the agreement could end up being marginally to Brown’s benefit, because at this point more outside groups may be inclined to support Warren (the biggest out-of-state conservative group helping Brown was the Karl Rove-aligned American Crossroads).

An exchange Brown and Warren had over the pledge also highlights a potential pitfall for the Democrat. “I am pleased to uphold my end of the bargain with Professor Warren,” Brown said in a statement. “With this action, we have taken a step toward strengthening the People’s Pledge by expanding it to cover issue ads. I am determined to keep third-party groups out of Massachusetts and I am encouraged that issue ads are now covered and by the commitment that both candidates have shown to honoring the People’s Pledge.”

Contrast this with Warren’s statement: “It is appropriate that on the day Scott Brown votes to give billions in tax dollars to big oil, the richest most profitable companies on the planet, he’s writing a check because big oil spent tens of thousands of dollars advertising on his behalf. Big oil and energy already have given him nearly $200,000. But we are glad he has decided to pay up and the pledge is intact.”

One of Martha Coakley’s problems was that she appeared relentlessly negative, while Brown remained positive and upbeat. It’s more acceptable for a challenger to criticize an incumbent’s record, and unlike the special election, the Brown-Warren contest will happen while other political mudslinging is going on. But Warren at least runs a risk of falling into the trap Brown set for Coakley. Writes Bernstein, “Tellingly, Brown has not unleashed his bankroll to attack Warren—to define her negatively, before she has a chance to solidify a positive impression.”

Although Warren’s strong poll and fundraising numbers cleared the field of major primary competitors, her glide path to the Democratic nomination is also attributable to her party’s major elected officials taking a pass on the race. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino has openly signaled that he thinks Brown will win and that Warren must prove she is “saleable.” In a late March interview, he even declined to express support for Warren. “I’m not with anybody at this time,” Menino told a Boston television station. “At this time, I’m not involved in the campaign.”

BROWN IS A RARE Massachusetts Republican who has never lost an election. Warren is a Democrat who has never won one. But this won’t be a cakewalk. Brown has little margin for error. Warren’s party affiliation gives her a much higher floor. Remember that Coakley ran a much worse campaign in a more difficult climate without high turnout from Democratic blocs, and she still received 47.1 percent of the vote. Brown ran in a Tea Party year with an element of surprise and got 51.9 percent.

With the exception of the GOP landslide year of 1994, Republican statewide winners since 1990 have typically finished in the low 50s by carrying at least 65 percent of independents, 25 percent of Democrats, and 90 percent of Republicans. Brown will have to hit those numbers while Obama is on the ballot, in a state where recent Democratic presidential nominees have broken 60 percent. Massachusetts Republicans fielded an unusually competitive slate of candidates in the last election, but all of them, except for Brown and some people running for the legislature, lost.

So it’s no surprise that Scott Brown will be behind Romney in the race for the White House. Romney is the only candidate who might keep Obama below 60 percent in Massachusetts. But in his typical balancing act, Brown will stay way, way behind Romney.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.