Scott Brown's evening is not going well. "We don't know if we can trust you," a man in the audience says. "You didn't answer my question!" yells another. "You talk about unity," says a third, "but you're the one who came up here and divided the party."
A hundred folks have squeezed into a small Holiday Inn conference room in downtown Concord, N.H., on a recent Tuesday night. Brown stands at the front. When he began addressing the group, he was wearing a blue blazer. With his full head of hair, his leading-man looks, his male-model smile, and his angular frame, he looked more like a prosperous real-estate developer than a U.S. Senate candidate. But now the jacket is off and the shirtsleeves are rolled up. The jaw is rigid. "Don't question my commitment to our state," Brown tells one critic.
In this context, "our" is a loose term, because Brown has been a resident of New Hampshire for just about half a year. Katy Perry's "Prism" has been on the charts longer. But if Brown needs any further reminders that he is no longer in Massachusetts, they are as plain as the holstered sidearms worn by many in the room.
It's the monthly meeting of the Gun Owners of New Hampshire, a group in which fear of the United Nations and talk of impeaching President Obama for treason are part of the normal course of business. Brown is viewed with deep suspicion among this crowd, largely because after the Newtown, Conn., school shootings in 2012, he advocated banning assault weapons.
That was back when Brown was a celebrity senator from Massachusetts, the truck-driving everyman who had stormed from nowhere and captured Ted Kennedy's old seat. Given the liberal slant of Massachusetts voters, Brown could safely support gun control and abortion rights. Here in New Hampshire, that's tougher. And in this room, this very night, it's impossible.
To Brown's credit, he doesn't pander. He doesn't tell them what they want to hear or deny his past positions. Even more surprisingly, he tells a room full of conservatives and libertarians that if he's elected to the Senate, he'll go back to Washington and try to work with Democrats.
He reminds the crowd that, like it or not, he's their best shot to unseat the Democratic incumbent, Jeanne Shaheen, and restore the Senate to GOP control. Shaheen, he adds pointedly, "would never come here and look you in the eye and ask you to keep an open mind."
The room doesn't seem close to sold — and many in attendance openly talk about their support for two other GOP candidates in the primary, former Sen. Bob Smith and ex-state Sen. Jim Rubens. At one point, Brown, his palms spread outward, tells a man to "vote for whoever you want!" After someone openly accuses Brown of being a liar, Brown's wife, Gail Huff, becomes so exasperated that she stands up and sits farther away.
Throughout it all, though, Brown never appears rattled. Instead, he seems determined not to let them win, telling the group that he'll stand there and answer questions all night if he has to. He'll work the problem to death. That's all he knows. "You think this is hard?" he asks at one point. "Being a Republican from Massachusetts is hard. Living in 17 homes, getting the shit kicked out of you, that's hard." Nobody really knows what to say to that.
AN AUTHENTICITY PROBLEM
You have to understand: In that room in Concord, Brown wasn't only defending his record — he was defending his story, the narrative that shapes his political life. Because, in New Hampshire, the very nature of Scott Brown's self is under siege. And on some level, it must bother him that, having been so achingly and unusually honest about the trials of his life, the biggest issue now facing him is his sincerity, his authenticity as a person.
Like many politicians — Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to name just two — Brown finds power in the personal. The tale of his triumph over poverty, indifferent parents, sexual predators, and bullying stepfathers is so potent that Brown published a searing memoir during his time in the Senate that pulled few punches. (One passage describes how he was tempted to buy the former home of his abusive stepfather just so he could burn it to the ground.) And as he showed at the Holiday Inn, he does not shy away from talking about it.
But running for the Senate in New Hampshire, Brown has had to reconcile his straight-talking, confessional, working-class persona with accusations that he is an opportunist so desperate to get back to the cosseted world of Washington that he pulled up stakes and moved across the state line. A conservative protester at the Concord event conveyed a typical sentiment, standing across the street holding a sign that read "Brownbagger Go Home."
Brown has sought to repel this line of attack by relating the role New Hampshire played in his childhood drama. He was born in Portsmouth and spent his summers in the coastal town of Rye with his grandparents — a refuge, he calls it, from the tumult of his time with his mother, which included living in 17 homes before Brown was 18 and vicious beatings from her and two stepfathers. "When I was going through my struggles, I could spend my summers in Rye," Brown likes to say. Supporters believe he's neutralizing the issue. "He was born here — his family goes back to the 1600s," says Joe Maloy, who owns a printing business in Hooksett that Brown recently toured.
Beyond that, Brown seems determined to defuse the carpetbagger issue the only way he knows how: by getting in that pickup truck and working as many rooms and rope lines as he can. "I have been surprised by how much retail he has been doing," says Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the state GOP. "I'll go as far as to say he must need it."
Small rooms fit Brown best. He's not a born orator — and he doesn't come preloaded with talk-radio software, like Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. Neither is he into pledges and promises. (He wouldn't sign one at the gun meeting.) He operates, as someone here told me, like he always has — as a person who lives by his wits, minute by minute, never thinking too far ahead. The skills that saved him as a boy.
It's the same way he won the special election in Massachusetts in 2010. When I covered that race, the moment I realized Brown would win came when I overheard union members coming from a rally for Brown's opponent, Martha Coakley, saying that they were, in secret, going to vote for Brown instead. He had that kind of blue-collar appeal.
This is another state and another time, but Brown is certainly trying — as with the gun group in Concord. His campaign was worried enough about the event to demand that no tape recorders or video cameras be present. But by the end of the meeting, some in the crowd had given Brown credit for at least showing up and hearing them out.
Even as he fights to once again persuade voters of his authenticity, Brown also faces a tricky ideological balancing act. First, he has to win the September primary — although he appears to have a clear edge there. Smith, who served two terms in the Senate, is largely discredited because of his flirtation in the late 1990s with what was then known as the U.S. Taxpayers Party and a subsequent move to Florida, where he again ran for the Senate. Plus, right after Memorial Day, the state's popular Republican senator, Kelly Ayotte, endorsed Brown. A May poll taken by Vox Populi, a new GOP polling firm, showed Brown leading Smith by 25 percentage points.
But once he gets to the general election, he'll need to persuade the electorate to dump Jeanne Shaheen, and in that race, he's an underdog. The same GOP poll had Brown down 12 points to Shaheen; other polls have put the margin at 5 or 6 points. "I think it will take a good wave to take out Shaheen, and I don't see it yet," says Dante Scala, an expert on state politics at the University of New Hampshire.
In recent years, New Hampshire has shed its reputation as an outpost for flap-hatted, shotgun-carrying, live-free-or-die types. Like Brown himself, Massachusetts residents have swarmed across the border, transforming the state into one that swings wildly between Democratic and Republican majorities. Its two senators — one a Republican, one a Democrat — are both viewed as loyal partisans. And the state Legislature in recent years has oscillated between Democratic and Republican control.
Against this backdrop, Brown seems to be hoping that his centrist credentials will serve him well. New Hampshire has long shown an affinity for maverick types, such as John McCain in the 2000 and 2008 GOP presidential primaries. Brown is holding himself out as an old-school independent actor, a politician determined to chart his own zig-zaggy course in Washington. And in truth, while serving in the Senate, Brown did rile GOP leaders at times by siding with the Democrats. In 2011 and 2012, he voted with his party 66 percent of the time, while his opponent, Shaheen, voted with hers 96 percent of the time, according to The Washington Post. Brown "has proven himself independent of voters, independent of his party. That's representative of what New Hampshirites are," says Joe Maloy. "I think he gets it. I think he truly understands the New Hampshire difference."
Brown is also seeking to exploit the flaws in the Affordable Care Act — and there are reasons to think the issue may have more traction here than in other races. Access to health care has become a significant worry. There is only one insurer on the state exchange, and a significant percentage of the state's hospitals — 10 of 26 — are not in the network. This has translated into canceled policies, farther trips, and longer waiting times for patients, Brown's campaign argues.
In addition, Brown will need strong support from women voters. Strangely for a male GOP politician, Brown has a reverse gender gap, Scala says. Women support him in greater numbers than men, who may be more skeptical of his conservatism. But that might not be such a surprise, given that Brown was raised by a single mom and has two grown daughters. His comfort level with female voters is evident.
"IT MAKES HIM HUMAN"
This sensibility was on full display the day before the Concord gun showdown, when Brown held an event for a network of women supporters at his ramshackle campaign headquarters. It was just a few days after Mother's Day, and the crowd was warmed up by former state Sen. Julie Brown (no relation), who told a story about how Brown had just spent time repainting his mother's house — pretty much a standard-issue campaign anecdote about the Good Son.
But something in Brown felt the need to correct the record and do so publicly — like someone still trying to put all the puzzle pieces of his life in the right places. As he took the lectern, he noted that, in fact, only in the last year had his long-strained relationship with his mother begun to really improve. "For the first time in my life," Brown told the gathering of largely middle-aged women, "she actually said she loved me."
"Each and every one of you know what I'm talking about," he continued. "I understand now the decisions she made. All of that anger has kind of melted away." Then it was on to more generic GOP talking points on the Affordable Care Act and the Keystone pipeline. But it was those opening moments that resonated — and that may help him gradually rebuild his reputation for authenticity, even in a state that doesn't yet seem to fully trust him. "It makes him human," Debbie Kajander, a supporter from Portsmouth, told me afterward. "It reinforces that he is concerned for the people and not the party itself."