Scott Brown is changing minds in New Hampshire.
Since the spring, the man who only a year ago was a U.S. senator in neighboring Massachusetts has toyed with running for the Granite State's Senate seat. But only in the last two weeks have many GOP leaders there begun taking Brown seriously. Whereas before they saw a fallen political star desperate for attention, they now see a possible first-tier contender genuinely contemplating a campaign.
He's no sure bet; those close to the onetime Bay State lawmaker, who lost reelection last year, say his odds are no better than 50-50. And Republican operatives concede the many challenges that awaiting Brown are reason enough to doubt he'll ever jump in. But over the past few months, their once palpable skepticism has transformed into cautious optimism.
"I think Brown's interest in New Hampshire over the past several months has gone from passing, to lukewarm, to serious," said Jim Merrill, a longtime GOP hand who's previously voiced skepticism about a campaign. "I think he is now very serious about a potential run, and GOP activists and leaders here are encouraged."
A Brown campaign would have a considerable impact on battle for the Senate majority in 2014. The state GOP has yet to recruit a threatening challenger to Democratic incumbent Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a wasted opportunity in a swing state where Republicans have a strong record. Brown's name ID, moderate reputation and fundraising prowess guarantee he'd be a formidable opponent, even if he'd likely begin as an underdog to the popular former governor.
Brown's first forays into New Hampshire politics in April -- and the speculation they elicited about a possible Senate campaign -- were initially greeted with eye-rolls. He was a carpetbagger intruding on a state that could hold its own politically without the help of a Bay State neighbor. Speaking at local GOP events attracted attention, but Republicans complained he wasn't performing the due diligence required of a possible statewide candidate -- retail politics like calling establishment and activist leaders.
But the last few months have changed his, and the party's, circumstances. Fellow Republicans considering a campaign, like state Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley and former Rep. Charlie Bass, declined. And the entrance of another candidate, former GOP Sen. Bob Smith, has panicked Republican leaders. Smith, who was defeated by his own party in a 2002 primary before running unsuccessfully for Senate in Florida, unexpectedly announced his candidacy early this month, and most analysts consider him a glorified gadfly with little chance of unseating Shaheen.
So when news broke last week that Brown was speaking at the state party's holiday fundraiser in late December, the reaction was different. "I've been skeptical about Senator Brown all year," said Fergus Cullen, former state party chairman. "But his agreeing to headline an event for the state party, and doing so on the heels of Bob Smith's announcement, represents a change, something different from what he's done for the past six months. There's no question the establishment here is rolling out the welcome mat for him."
Shaheen's circumstances had also changed while Republicans waited for Brown. Sources close to ex-senator point to Obamacare's disastrous rollout, and the political price it has exacted on Democrats, as added incentive to run. Shaheen remains formidable, but Democrats elsewhere have taken a hit in approval over the health care law.
"Certainly, as I was looking at the race, it was very much uphill," said Bradley. "That trajectory might have flattened out a little bit. Even though it would be uphill for him, he would put the race in play."
Before reaching a general election, however, Brown would have to win a primary. Most Republicans don't think that will be a problem for a party desperate to find a viable alternative to Shaheen, but Brown's record is riddled with apostasies that will invite skepticism from some conservative quarters. And it's one of several reasons for skepticism about a Brown campaign.
Among other breaks from orthodoxy, he has supported abortion-rights, a ban on assault rifles and backed a fiscal cliff deal that meant an end to the Bush-era tax cuts. Such things meant little when he was the hero of the GOP after winning a 2010 special election in Massachusetts, or when he vied against the liberal icon Warren. But it could matter in a GOP primary, the likes of which Brown never faced in 2009 or 2012.
New Hampshire -- proportionately at least -- has more Republicans than Massachusetts, and those Republicans are more conservative, said one GOP consultant familiar with both state's politics.
"New Hampshire is not like Massachusetts in that it has an organized and vocal conservative activist base," said the strategist, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly. "You can expect that base to give Scott Brown a hard time over some of his less conservative votes he made when he was a senator from Massachusetts."
In addition to Smith, he would face conservative activist Karen Testerman in a primary. Brown would be favored to defeat both, but the prospect of slugging it out for conservative votes could be enough to persuade him to stay put in what is by all accounts a comfortable life outside of politics. There, he makes a lot of money as a Fox News contributor and member of a Boston-area law firm. "Does he really want to give up his life in the private sector?" said one person familiar with Brown's thinking. "I think he really enjoys what he's doing right now. Does he want to give that up to go to a dysfunctional Congress?"
Even those who have talked with Brown concede that only he knows what he's truly thinking. His calls to GOP leaders and activists have still been limited, and no Republican is aware of any staff formally working with Brown even as he makes campaign-style visits around the state. So far, he's running a one-man effort. "I think he's actually keeping his own counsel on this," said Tom Rath, a top GOP strategist in New Hampshire. "I don't know anybody up here who is a Scott Brown guy."
Still, expectations around Brown have shifted considerably since even before the Thanksgiving holidays. Now Republicans are playing a waiting game for his decision -- one some expect won't come until late winter or even early spring. That would normally annoy even the most ardent Brown fan, but New Hampshire Republicans don't have a choice. At this point, there's no other viable candidate in waiting.
And at least now, unlike before, they think they have a realistic shot at nabbing Brown. "I still feel like Charlie Brown, warily eyeing Lucy holding the football," said Cullen. "We're giving him one last chance to be serious about this."