Scott Brown: Bay State politico at a crossroads

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W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat is blue again. Less than three years after Republican Sen. Scott Brown took the political world by storm, he will return home to his pickup truck in Wrentham, Massachusetts.

Brown has now run for office ten times. Despite being a Republican in one of the country’s most Democratic states, Tuesday night was his first loss. But that didn’t make his defeat at the hands of Elizabeth Warren, a first-time candidate, any easier to take.

It was always going to be difficult for Brown to win a full Senate term in a presidential election year. He won the remainder of Kennedy’s unexpired term in a special election and was able to take Massachusetts Democrats by surprise. The center-right majority assembled by Republican candidates in the past is small, in the low 50-percent range, giving him little margin for error.

But Brown led in the polls for much of the year and was competitive throughout. “[L]ooking back to when this all started out, I don’t think there was anything in the demographics that prevented either of them from having a legitimate shot at winning,” Steve Koczela of MassINC Polling Group told The Daily Caller News Foundation in an email.

Brown posted fairly solid numbers, even in defeat. He ran nearly ten points ahead of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. (Romney failed to break 40 percent in Massachusetts despite being the state’s former governor). He beat Warren among independents, a 45 percent plurality of the electorate, by a 59-to-41 margin.

He also won a 55-45 majority of moderates, who comprise 47 percent of the Massachusetts electorate. Even with his nonpartisan image, he held on to 95 percent of Republicans and 78 percent of conservatives.

Sixty-four percent of Massachusetts voters considered the economy the most important election issue. Brown won over this group, 51 percent to 49 percent. He also carried the tiny sliver of Bay Staters who cared most about the deficit, by a 61 percent to 39 percent margin. The exit polls, unfortunately, didn’t ask about taxes. (Brown repeatedly hit Warren as a tax-hiker.)

But Warren won 74 percent of the vote among those who cared most about health care, even though Brown’s pledge to be the 41st vote against Obamacare was crucial to his 2010 special election win. She also won back a lot of the “Scott Brown Democrats,” taking 89 percent of Democratic Party faithful.

Brown won only 19 percent of voters with a favorable impression of President Barack Obama. Even with the rise of independent voters in Massachusetts, that was too small a crossover vote for Brown.

There was also a gender gap. Brown prevailed among men by 53 percent to 47 percent. Warren became Massachusetts’ first female senator by carrying women 59 percent to 41 percent. While Brown touted his pro-choice credentials, Warren tied him to national Republicans on abortion and contraception.

Driving a wedge between socially conservative Democrats and socially liberal swing voters was an important part of Warren’s strategy. Brown needed big margins among both groups. Abortion and the HHS contraception mandate on religious employers — cast as a “war on women” by Democrats nationally — were two issues that pit them against each other and forced Brown to straddle.

Many of the things Brown did to demonstrate his independence from the national Republican Party so he could remain viable in a Democratic state cost him the support of outside conservative groups. Brown’s election was a tea party cause in 2010, with many out-of-state activists donating money and providing organizational muscle.

This time around, Warren was the candidate with outside support. She was considered an intellectual hero by Occupy Wall Street and became a national progressive sensation. The balancing act that served Brown so well throughout his political career finally failed him, as he struggled to hold the right and center together.

Brown also broke precedent by engaging in negative campaigning against Warren, a tactic he had mostly eschewed against Martha Coakley and his other past Democratic opponents. He attacked Warren’s liberalism, her debunked claims of Native American ancestry and her Harvard affiliation.

Two years ago, Brown was seen as above the fray while Coakley attacked him relentlessly. He had always done well by talking about local sports, Boston cultural pride and the contributions of military veterans, rather than hard ideological politics.

Joe Malone, a Republican who served two terms as Massachusetts state treasurer during the 1990s, had a similar appeal. He did regular radio broadcasts where he was as likely to talk about Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics as the state budget or what was going on in the treasurer’s office. He was renowned for being a nice guy.

When Malone ran for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1998, taking on the state’s sitting lieutenant governor, he went sharply negative. He compared his GOP primary opponent to Michael Dukakis. He ran ads chastising budget-busting liberalism. He retained Arthur Finkelstein, a hard-hitting New York Republican consultant who had worked for Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond.

Malone lost badly and his political career never recovered.

Brown’s situation is not as dire, as he remains personally popular. But Brown may have hurt his brand identity in this particular race. He  had a difficult time distancing himself from the Republican congressional leadership while simultaneously retaining his base. Hitting Warren on her own partisanship did not seem to shore him up with independents, based on the trends in the polls.

Brown is only 53 and the Massachusetts Republican bench isn’t very deep. The state GOP has been unusually competitive in a number of races while still falling short, including promising congressional candidacies by Sean Bielat in 2010 and Richard Tisei this year. Brown could run for governor in 2014. If John Kerry becomes secretary of state in a second Obama administration, he could run again for Senate.

But as former Gov. William Weld learned when he challenged Kerry in 1996, there is a limit to what personal popularity can accomplish in the face of a strong Massachusetts Democratic tide.

“Defeat is only temporary,” Brown said in his concession speech. Time will tell.

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