Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., was the tea party's first big success last year, winning the late Sen. Edward Kennedy's seat on a wave of populist antagonism that flowed through the November midterms and turned 2010 into a big Republican year.
Brown probably doesn’t have much to worry about in 2012, but as a Republican in one of the most Democratic states, he has, predictably, taken some positions that did not sit well with some in the tea party movement.
At least one tea party group has already pledged to pose a primary challenge for Brown. The National Republican Trust PAC, which financially backed Brown in the January 2010 special election, has publicly berated him for becoming a “Democratic hostage” on votes such as the New START Treaty with Russia.
Yet in spite of criticism from the right that he has gone rogue, the senator’s biggest—and wealthiest—supporters say they’re still behind him.
“With Scott Brown, we got what we figured we would get,” said Max Pappas, vice president of public policy for FreedomWorks, which loudly championed Brown last year. “We knew he would be there with us on the big vote, and didn’t necessarily on some of the smaller ones.
“There was some controversy when he voted for a $15 billion spending increase last year,” Pappas continued, referring to the jobs bill passed last February, “but we knew if it was a $1.5 trillion spending increase, he’d be with us.” As for votes on legislation like START, Pappas said it’s “out of our periphery—we focus on fiscal responsibility and limited government.”
Even Scott Wheeler, who heads the PAC trying to oust Brown, admits that he never expected him to walk a perfectly straight Republican line: “We understand, coming from Massachusetts, he isn't going to vote on a lot of issues the way we'd like,” Wheeler told Hotline On Call recently. “But if he’s not going to vote for any issue, what’s the point of having him? Why not have a Democrat there?”
Brown’s situation is a litmus test of sorts; an unprecedented challenge for a movement that’s only seen one election and now must live up to its own cry for accountability. It is a calculation that tea party activists will have to make repeatedly as some of their 2010 successes come up for reelection in 2012. For groups like FreedomWorks, it’s a question of principle versus pragmatism.
“Sure,” Pappas said, as to whether or not his PAC would back Brown in 2012. (Pappas runs the group’s government relations shop in Massachusetts.) “We need 51 senators for Republicans to have the majority, and who the majority leader is and who the Senate committee leaders are is very important. You have to think about what’s going to have the most consequence.”
The current Senate leadership, Pappas alleged, is partly responsible for Brown’s somewhat schizophrenic party identification: “Scott is presented with a false dichotomy by [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid … Either spend $15 billion on unemployment or there’s no other option to vote for.
“If Republicans were in charge, spending cuts and tax cuts would be used as a way to stimulate the economy instead. It’s all part of a process in changing center of gravity in the Senate so that actually limited-government guys end up controlling the agenda,” Pappas added, citing Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Ron Johnson, R-Wis., as preferred tea party leadership.
Amy Kremer, chair of campaign powerhouse Tea Party Express, which also backed Brown last year, said it’s all about perspective: “It’s an interesting situation. While Scott Brown may be a moderate for me, he’ll be a conservative in Massachusetts. And he’s definitely more conservative than [former Democratic challenger] Martha Coakley. You’ve got to listen to the state, and he knows his state better than we do.”
Apparently, that’s true. Recent polling numbers show Brown to be one of the most popular politicians in Massachusetts. And his currently $7 million coffer will barely feel the punch of Wheeler’s $95,000—the amount in independent expenditure ads that his PAC contributed last year—going elsewhere.
Besides, added Brendan Steinhauser, director of FreedomWorks’s federal and state campaigns, “we’re going be looking at really good opportunities for primary challenges that will make a much bigger impact than it would in Massachusetts,” referencing Sens. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.
In the meantime, Brown isn’t overly concerned.
“Scott Brown has done exactly what he said he was going to do, which is hold the line on higher taxes and wasteful spending and fight for pro-growth policies that will get our economy moving again,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, political adviser to Brown, in an e-mail. “While no one is going to agree with his votes 100 percent of the time, his record of fiscal restraint is popular with people who live in Massachusetts.”