Republicans to Scott Brown: Oh, You’re Serious?

New Hampshire GOP are suddenly taking the former Massachusetts senator seriously, offering a great boon to the party’s hopes of winning the seat next year.

Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) speaks to attendees of the 37th Annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on February 18, 2010 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
Dec. 10, 2013, midnight

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.  (Chet Suss­lin)

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.”

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