Can Scott Brown Win Over New Hampshire?

The GOP Senate candidate is harnessing the power of the personal, determined to prove he’s not a carpetbagger.

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Scott Brown speaks after getting the endorsement from former New Hampshire governors, Steve Merrill, far left, and Craig Benson, far right, and U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, not seen, Tuesday, May 27, 2014 in Nashua, N.H. Brown is trying to unseat U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. 
AP
James Oliphant
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James Oliphant
June 5, 2014, 5 p.m.

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.

CENT­RIST CRE­DEN­TIALS

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.”

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