The Return of Scott Brown

Perhaps future textbooks in electoral politics will label 2014 the year of red state anxiety. Given the vulnerability of Democratic incumbents in the Senate, this might not be too outlandish a prediction. Seven states in particular—Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina and West Virginia—feature vulnerable Democrats up for re-election, feeling the heat of growing disenchantment with the Affordable Care Act, and putting the prospect of a Democratically-controlled Senate in question. That Obamacare is spurring this apprehension in Democratic circles in undeniable—North Carolina’s Kay Hagan is distancing herself from the law which she helped champion in 2010, in a red state where Public Policy Polling has noted a 38% approval rating for the ACA, compared with a 39% approval rating for the junior senator herself. Hagan is representative of a greater trend overarching the 2014 midterms in which Democrats in states carried by Romney are seeking to create distance between themselves and the President, feeling the heat from their red state constituencies.

New Hampshire proves an interesting corollary to the 2014 narrative. The Granite State, carried by Obama the past two elections, Kerry in 2004 and Clinton in both of his White House runs, has caught the attention of the political observer class. A familiar name has surfaced as a potential rival to incumbent Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen—former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, who energized the Republican base in 2010 when he won the vacated seat of the late Ted Kennedy before being ousted in last election by the populist progressive Elizabeth Warren. Mr. Brown appears to be seeking the eye of New Hampshire’s political establishment, with the Washington Post reporting his presence at County GOP meetings and fundraisers for Republican candidates throughout the state.  Accompanying his growing visibility in New Hampshire are grumblings of carpet-bagging. Of more relevance, in light of Republican sights on controlling the Senate, is early state polling—Real Clear Politics currently has Brown tied with Shaheen. Brown has become a name that national political pundits cannot afford to ignore.

Brown makes an intriguing choice as a senate candidate in New Hampshire for a number of reasons. Foremost, the former senator’s first campaign against Martha Coakley in 2010 was predicated on his opposition to Obamacare—thus was his campaign’s raison d’être, a sticking point that the entire GOP establishment rallied around when the Affordable Care Act was being crafted. Scott Brown became a household name for his opposition to the ACA, helping him overcome a thirty point shortfall in his race against Coakley, and in turn putting a Republican from Massachusetts in the Senate for the first time since Edward Brooke in 1972. Contrast this with Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire’s senior senator. Elected in 2008, Shaheen has been a staunch ally of President Obama—voting for the Affordable Care Act, and touting the law’s merits ever since. That came to an end in October, when the law’s disastrous rollout illustrated that the ACA wasn’t all Democrats made it out to be, with many losing their health insurance and companies cutting the number and hours of their workers in an attempt to avoid penalty fees. Shaheen, as a champion of Obamacare, has come to represent the law’s consequences to the people of New Hampshire while Brown embodies the anti-Obamacare movement (the rational anti-Obamacare movement; Brown isn’t trying to shut down the government). President Obama and his signature healthcare reform have caused a lot of anxiety for his Democratic ally from New Hampshire and an awful lot of firepower for the former senator from Massachusetts.

The accusations of carpet-bagging are trivial, a narrative likely pushed by Tea Party groups who time and again show that their interest is not in governing, but in appeasing an uncompromising right-wing constituency. Scott Brown is a moderate Republican, the type of candidate that right-wing talk radio attacks more these days than Democrats. But it’s the very fact that Brown is a moderate that makes him suited to win in the Northeast, where Republicans must be pragmatic and more liberal on social issues in order to win elections. Brown fits this description, as a pro-choice Republican who has assailed the gridlock currently befalling Washington. Of course, this didn’t bring him victory against Elizabeth Warren in 2012, signaling that his special-election victory in 2010 perhaps was a unique moment in Massachusetts’s political history, in the context of  trepidation over the passage of a major healthcare reform, and a young charismatic candidate who captured the enthusiasm of the greater national party. Liberal Massachusetts may be a stretch for Republicans going forward—GOP candidate Gabriel Gomez lost handedly to Ed Markey in last year’s special election to fill John Kerry’s seat, despite his support for gay marriage, expanded background checks on firearm purchases and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

A Scott Brown rally during his 2012 US Senate reelection campaign. Photo by Scott Brown/Twitter.
A Scott Brown rally during his 2012 US Senate reelection campaign.
Photo by Scott Brown/Twitter.

New Hampshire, where license plates bear the state motto—“Live free or die”—is the most conservative of the New England states, where Republican groups are well organized and active. Junior senator Kelly Ayotte is a rock-solid conservative and a reliable critic of Obamacare. Brown, given his streak as a moderate conservative, has the potential to join Ayotte as a Republican senator from New Hampshire. Brown straddles a unique brand of conservatism for the Granite State—opposition to the Affordable Care Act and pro-business credentials, coupled with a bipartisan pragmatism that makes him a palatable Republican in a national climate, where the GOP is increasingly painted as a puppet of the Tea Party. The political circumstances surrounding this year’s Senate race signal that Shaheen ought to be nervous. If her failure to confirm that the President will be campaigning with her in New Hampshire is any indication, she is.

The Affordable Care Act, while the antithesis of Scott Brown’s principles as a conservative, might be the best thing that ever happened to him politically. Campaigning as the “forty-first senator” to filibuster the ACA in 2010 brought him into the U.S. Senate in the first place, and increasing disenchantment with the law four years later looks to be a successful rallying point for his campaign in 2014. Shaheen, who voted with the President 99% of the time last year, has a lot of explaining to do in New Hampshire, where sixty percent of residents believe Obamacare will cause their health care costs to increase, if she wants to keep her seat in the Senate. Scott Brown’s argument is much easier.

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