Scott Brown’s famous GMC pickup truck displays neither a gun rack nor an NRA bumper sticker. What it does noticeably feature is a Massachusetts license plate. And yet Brown, who spent at least part of Christmas day unpacking moving boxes in his Rye, N.H., home, is the consensus front-runner for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate from New Hampshire next year. Through all of this year’s national talk about Brown — his ego, his political future, his chances against Democratic incumbent Sen. Jeanne Shaheen — the real story has been lost. It isn’t Brown. It’s the New Hampshire Republican Party’s inability to recruit top-tier candidates.
Brown and his wife have moved into the family’s New Hampshire vacation home — which is a little more than half the size of the home in Wrentham, Mass., they just sold — at a time when the New Hampshire Republican Party has found itself with an inexplicable shortage of national-level talent. This is a state with a 424-member Legislature, a five-member elected Executive Council that advises the governor and approves state contracts, a tradition of town meetings in which locals cut their political teeth, and the first-in-the-nation presidential primary, in which locals famously get to interact one-on-one with presidential candidates. The depth of political experience among the general population in New Hampshire is almost certainly unsurpassed within the United States, if not the Western world. And yet the state GOP can’t find a formidable candidate to run for any statewide office next year, in what many people think will be a Republican surge.
The announced Republican candidates for U.S. Senate are Karen Testerman, a Christian conservative activist in a state with a scant evangelical population, Jim Rubens, a moderate former state senator who is best known for opposing expanded gambling (which is popular in the state) and for once living in a commune, and former U.S. Sen. Bob Smith, who left the Republican Party, returned to it, lost a primary while a sitting senator, and then moved to Florida, where he entertained political junkies with abortive campaigns for U.S. Senate and president.
The one candidate who could have clinched the nomination simply by announcing was former Sen. John E. Sununu, whom Shaheen defeated when she won the seat in 2008. He is not running. His brother, Executive Councilor and ski resort owner Chris Sununu, was considered a viable challenger for Shaheen, too, but he is not running either (as of now). Three former U.S. Reps. — Frank Guinta, Jeb Bradley, and Charlie Bass — have also decided to pass. The last two Republican nominees for governor, John Stephen (2010) and Ovide Lamontagne (2012), are busy with new careers (and Lamontagne has already lost to Shaheen once, for governor in 1996). Former U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg is not interested. No one has heard a peep from the bigger names in the 2010 field that was bested by Kelly Ayotte — millionaire business executives Bill Binnie and Jim Bender. Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, a former state Senate president, has shown no interest in the race either.
Every one of the New Hampshire Republican Party’s big guns has holstered itself for 2014. Known names who would be considered perhaps second tier but who could give Shaheen a good run or at least force her to send a lot of money are not interested, at least not for now. Scott Brown is stepping onto an empty field with only three bench-warmers in the dugout, the entire starting lineup having hung up their spikes. When people say he would be the likely nominee were he to run, believe it.
Outside New Hampshire, there is a perception that Brown faces a daunting challenge in a GOP primary because he is pro-choice and in favor of gun control. In reality, only the gun issue is a big problem. Bass in the 2nd District and Bradley in the 1st both were pro-choice and repeatedly defeated more conservative challengers. But guns are a big issue in New Hampshire. The challenge for Republicans who employ a 2nd Amendment litmus test is finding a candidate who can beat Brown.
State Rep. Al Baldasaro has hinted that he might run, and the former Marine is well-connected in pro-gun circles. When Brown spoke at the GOP Christmas Party fundraiser in Nashua on Dec. 19, Pro-Gun New Hampshire organized a protest across the street. Baldasaro was there, mingling with the crowd. But few consider him a credible opponent despite his platform purity. Brown is charming and charismatic and has a large donor base. Baldasaro enjoys none of those attributes. It is easy to see Brown getting hammered on the gun issue throughout the entire primary, but it is hard to come up with a challenger who could exploit the issue successfully while also winning over voters who are more passionate about other issues.
Assuming Scott Brown decides to run, and barring the entry of another heavyweight, Brown would most likely clinch the Republican nomination. This is the case even though he has annoyed party leaders and activists by giving Shaheen an easy fundraising hook and by talking in speech after speech about how bipartisan he was in the Senate. But will he run? At the Christmas party fundraiser in Nashua, Brown sounded like someone laying the groundwork for a candidacy. He said the party would need unity to beat Shaheen next year. He cited Ronald Reagan and said that someone who agreed with him 70-80 percent of the time was a friend, not an enemy. He spoke of the need to defeat Shaheen so Congress could repeal Obamacare.
Yet Brown gives the impression that he is genuinely undecided. His speeches are still somewhat subdued, still general in tone. Clearly he is positioning himself for a run. But it is not clear whether he has decided to make it. (Maybe he has, but it isn’t clear that he has.) When I spoke with him at the Nashua fundraiser, he said he would wait at least until after the holidays to decide.
So for now, you can take a break from the speculation and enjoy New Year’s celebrations. Unless you are New Hampshire Republican Party official, in which case you might want to spend some time figuring out why your top candidate for U.S. Senate is a guy who doesn’t even have a New Hampshire driver’s license yet.