The second coming of Scott Brown

Inside a Massachusetts moderate's quest to become New Hampshire's next senator

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Standing alone outside the glass door of a ballroom at the Sheraton Portsmouth Harborside Hotel, Rex Houdyshell, a systems engineer from Amherst, was waiting patiently to finally see Scott Brown in the flesh.

Houdyshell, a soft-spoken man with short hair who hunts Bigfoot in his spare time, was the first supporter to arrive at the event where Brown, the former Massachusetts Republican senator who lost his seat in 2012 to Democrat Elizabeth Warren, would launch his campaign Thursday to redefine himself and return to the Senate via New Hampshire.

“He was the hero of 2010,” Houdyshell told me while we both waited for the doors to open for Brown’s big kickoff.

Indeed, there was a time when Brown appeared to be a tea party savior, when he shocked everyone by winning a Massachusetts special election to replace the late Ted Kennedy. At the time, his victory snatched the final vote Democrats needed to pass President Barack Obama’s controversial health insurance overhaul. (Congress passed it anyway by exploiting a little-used procedural trick that rendered the filibuster useless. Republicans are still sore about it.) Brown was a tea party hero for a time, but would go on to represent blue Massachusetts as a moderate for only two years before his ouster.

“He’s too liberal for me to vote for president,” Houdyshell went on to tell me, “but as a Senate candidate, he’s in the best position to unseat Jeanne Shaheen.”

That’s about the same way several New Hampshire Republicans would characterize Brown, more or less, in these first few days of his campaign. Like the elusive sasquatches Houdyshell hunts in his free time, Republicans in New Hampshire have been searching for a viable candidate who can represent at least semiconservative values and be credible enough to take out a sitting senator. In the current political climate, which seems to reward extremism over compromise, the task is harder than it sounds.

Brown, despite his flaws and vulnerabilities, may again be the chosen one that Republicans need to bolster their numbers in the Senate. Before he entered the race, it looked as though Shaheen, a longtime New Hampshire Democratic activist and politician who rode the Obama wave to victory in 2008, would safely coast to re-election. The other Republican challengers, including the pre-Brown front-runner Jim Rubens, a two-term state senator, didn’t come within 20 points of the Democratic incumbent before Brown joined the race. In contrast, the latest polls between Brown and Shaheen put Brown within single digits. Striking distance.

Republicans here know it’ll be a long time before they can pop the Champagne and party like it’s 2010. Brown’s challenges are formidable. He’s lived in Massachusetts for most of his life, and during that time, he tailored his political positions for New Hampshire’s more liberal neighbor. While the notion of carpetbagging from Massachusetts to New Hampshire doesn’t sound nearly as ridiculous as an Arkansan in a Yankees cap and is probably not as egregious as New Hampshire Democrats hope to make it seem, Brown must still prove himself in his new and different political home.

It helps that he spent some of his childhood in the state, so Republican operatives here are pitching him as a native son who’s finally returning to where he truly belongs.

“We just gotta remind people that he’s coming back to his roots,” former New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu told me after the Portsmouth rally. Sununu, in case you have forgotten, was one of Romney’s most ubiquitous and delightfully crotchety surrogates during the presidential campaign in 2012. In true Sununu fashion, he not only defended Brown’s alleged Live Free or Die bona fides; he’s gone on the attack. To him, it is Shaheen, not Brown, who’s the real outsider.

“She votes with Elizabeth Warren. She votes with [Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ed] Markey. She is the third senator from Massachusetts,” Sununu told supporters at the Portsmouth rally before introducing Brown. “Scott’s happiest days as a young man were in New Hampshire. … So it’s going to be great to have a senator that was born virtually in the state of New Hampshire. Jean Shaheen, by the way, was born in Missouri!”

Did you catch how Sununu cleverly described Brown as “virtually" born in New Hampshire? He was actually born in Maine, which for Brown’s campaign is close enough for government work and has the great advantage of being closer than Missouri and not being Massachusetts. It is also rather audacious to paint Shaheen as a “senator from Massachusetts,” since Brown quite literally was, and very much wanted to remain, a senator from Massachusetts.

Making Shaheen into a foreign-born agent will be a challenge, obviously. In fact, it’s ludicrous (although amusing) to say she’s an outsider. While Shaheen, the first female senator in New Hampshire’s 226-year history, is indeed a native daughter of St. Charles, Mo., her involvement in New Hampshire politics stretches back decades. Her early career as a campaign operative brought her to the state Senate before going on to be a three-term governor. After a stint as the Director of Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, she was elected to the Senate. By way of comparison, Brown, a man with his own impressive political career as an attorney and state legislator in Massachusetts, obtained New Hampshire residency just a few weeks ago.

In short, Brown’s allies may want to just cut their losses on this one and focus on something other than geography.

Lucky for them, the Affordable Care Act remains an unpopular law, and it just so happens that Shaheen was elected to the Senate just in time to provide it her unapologetic support. Jackpot.

Brown’s campaign, shepherded by GOP uber-consultant Eric Fehrnstrom, who in 2012 simultaneously ran Brown’s unsuccessful Massachusetts re-election campaign and Romney’s, plans to spend the next eight months pounding Shaheen with impunity for her support of the health care law. Brown got things started on the night of his campaign announcement in Portsmouth, slamming Shaheen for casting what he called “the deciding vote on Obamacare.” This statement is technically true, although she was really “a deciding vote” on the law since it passed on a strictly partisan basis with just the amount of votes needed. Nuance is almost always one of the first causalities of politics, especially when it’s convenient for a campaign. Still, this is true enough, and hey, most voters won’t bother to check it out.

“It’s not just Obamacare. It’s her attitude towards it. She keeps doubling down saying she has no regrets,” Sununu told me. “You do something that bad, you oughta be sorry for it. The clock’s running out on sincerity. Even fake sincerity’s going to be hard.”

The very morning after his campaign announcement, Brown began traveling the state on an “Obamacare Isn’t Working Tour” in search of hand-picked stories involving people who have been hurt by the law. On Friday he visited a company that makes prosthetic devices for amputees where the owners blame the Affordable Care Act for increasing the cost of business and raising premiums on employees.

Meanwhile, an advocacy group called “Ending Spending Inc.” that’s backed by Chicago Cubs owner Joe Ricketts is launching ads in favor of Brown that slam Shaheen for her support of the law. Americans for Prosperity, a conservative activist network chaired by David Koch, has already spent $700,000 against Shaheen. The Karl Rove-aligned group American Crossroads is buying airtime as well.

In-state Republicans running against Brown in the primary race are attacking her too. Radio ads paid for by Andy Martin, one of Brown’s primary opponents, are going up on stations across the state aiming to bind her to Obama and the law. “Obama lied. Shaheen said Americans would keep their doctors. Shaheen lied,” the narrator says.

But will making the campaign about a single issue be enough to propel Brown back to Washington with a senator’s pin on his lapel? Democrats, unsurprisingly, insist it won’t stick.

“The fact that Scott Brown wants to repeal Obamacare, which is an unpopular position, would mean that 100,000 Granite Staters would lose their health care coverage,” New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Raymond Buckley told me over coffee in Concord. “He needs to explain to those 100,000 why he believes they don’t need health care coverage.”

Buckley pointed to polling data showing that full repeal of Obamacare — Brown’s position on the issue — is an unpopular stance. Despite the atrocious early hiccups that plagued the Web portal set up for enrollment in the insurance exchanges created under the Affordable Care Act, 22,000 New Hampshire residents signed up during the initial six-month enrollment period through, a number that surpassed the Obama administration’s state goal by about 6,000.

As a buttress against the onslaught of attacks, Shaheen has joined other potentially vulnerable Democrats in adopting a fix-it-but-don’t-repeal-it strategy that aims to offer changes to the law to make it more palatable while preserving elements that have proved popular.

While Brown focuses on casting Shaheen as an Obama rubber stamp, Democrats are attempting to build the case that Brown is a two-faced, shape-shifting opportunist. They point to his defense of a pledge he signed in Massachusetts not to take money from super PACs and other outside groups when he ran against Warren, a promise he has refused to make in this race. As recently as February, Brown was singing the pledge’s praises.

“I came up with the idea actually,” Brown said in a speech at Cornell University just two months ago. “We didn’t need another 30 to 40 million dollars coming in to distort our records and positions on things.”

And while Massachusetts and New Hampshire are neighbors separated by an invisible line, the differences between the states — and their voters — are stark.

During his Senate tenure, Brown sought to cement his independence supporting a list of liberal causes, voting in favor of Dodd-Frank banking reform legislation, supporting a federal ban on assault weapons and being one of the few Republicans who champion legal abortion access. Over the course of his eight-month quest for the Senate seat, he’ll likely be tasked with accounting for all of it for the new, less liberal constituents he wishes to court.

“Republicans are different in Massachusetts than they are here,” Rubens, Brown’s primary opponent, told me at a New Hampshire Republican Party event in Dover on Friday. “We are strong defenders of the Second Amendment here. We don’t want it compromised in any way. It’s not acceptable.”

National Republicans seem willing to overlook Brown’s tendency to entertain bipartisanship if it means knocking off another Democrat. Even Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, one of the staunchest conservatives in the upper chamber, doesn’t seem to mind Brown’s lack of ideological purity. “What I want to see,” Cruz told reporters in Manchester on Saturday when asked about the race, “is a Republican represent New Hampshire in the Senate elected in November 2014.” He declined to make an endorsement, but didn’t leave the impression that he found Brown unfit for the job.

To combat the challenges ahead, Brown has put in place a strong team. In addition to seeking the counsel of Fehrnstrom, Brown has also brought Romney press assistant Ryan Williams into the fold. Colin Reed, fresh from Gov. Chris Christie’s team in New Jersey, is serving as campaign manager. Elizabeth Guyton and Andy Leach, former aides to New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a lawmaker popular with conservatives, recently came on board. He’s also sought the talents of one of the most impressive millennial-generation ad makers, 25-year-old Lucas Baiano, who has a packed resume of crafting viral, high-impact videos for national campaigns.

The campaign hopes to showcase Brown as an independent, and one palatable to New Hampshire’s more libertarian tastes. The consultants are smart enough not to try to cast him as some kind of right-winger, a strategy they learned two years ago was a disaster for another Massachusetts moderate named Mitt Romney.

“If there’s one thing we need to see, it’s that independent spirit in action,” Brown told supporters at his Portsmouth rally. “I’m nobody’s yes man.”

Now he has eight months to get New Hampshire voters to believe it.

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