Northern Exposure

Two years after losing his Senate seat, Scott Brown has packed up his truck and fled Massachusetts. Can he convince New Hampshire voters that he’s one of them?
scott brown

Photograph by Bill Clark/ CQ Roll Call/ Getty Images

Late one afternoon in the middle of August, about 10 people were milling about a function room inside the Crowne Plaza hotel in Nashua, New Hampshire. They were waiting for Scott Brown, the one-time Republican senator from Massachusetts who was now hoping to become a Republican senator from New Hampshire, and who in a few minutes was scheduled to conduct the second in a series of town-hall meetings in his new state. In New Hampshire, town-hall meetings are typically held in a centrally located public space—which made the Crowne Plaza a curious choice of venue. The hotel, part of a sprawling office-park/strip-mall hybrid a few miles from Nashua’s charming downtown, is a little out of the way.

The afternoon’s town-hall meeting, on the topic of Obamacare, came at a sensitive time for Brown. Though polls indicated he held a comfortable lead over his two main rivals for the Republican nomination, they also showed him trailing in a general-election race against Democratic incumbent Senator Jeanne Shaheen. For months, Democratic-aligned third-party groups had been inundating the airwaves with negative ads portraying Brown alternately as a Masshole in sheep’s clothing, a Medicare-slashing ­instrument of Wall Street, and a puppet of the oil ­industry. (Meanwhile, Republican groups had unleashed a round of negative ads painting Shaheen as a puppet of Barack Obama.) Just a few weeks earlier, a widely circulated article in the Guardian had documented, in cringe-inducing ­detail, Brown fleeing to a bathroom to avoid ­answering a reporter’s questions. Somehow, a politician whose greatest political strength had always been his genuine likability and populist charm had found himself with negative ­personal-image numbers in New Hampshire.

Awaiting Brown in the ­hotel function room, two men in slacks and short-sleeve dress shirts made small talk until one of them looked at his watch. “I gotta stand outside,” he said. “They asked me to help in case the morons show up. You know who I mean?”

It was helpful of him to ask, actually, ­because you never knew which morons would attempt to crash a Scott Brown ­appearance. His events drew protests sometimes by Shaheen supporters, and sometimes by supporters of his chief opponents in the Republican primary: Bob Smith, a former U.S. senator, and Jim Rubens, who used to be a state senator. Smith and Rubens had attacked him, predictably, as a carpetbagger, but their main criticism involved comments Brown made after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook ­Elementary School in December 2012. Brown told a newspaper at the time that, after years of opposition to gun-control laws, he would support a ban on assault weapons, and that he might be open to preventing the mentally ill from owning certain weapons. These ­positions—overwhelmingly popular with the general public—are heresy in the right-wing circles that account for most of the votes cast in Republican primaries.

A few minutes later, Brown arrived at the hotel. Tall, tanned, and handsome in a blazer and open-collar dress shirt, he paced the hallway outside the function room, shaking hands and chatting with supporters and campaign staffers before striding into the room. He was soon approached by Robert Costa, a Washington Post reporter. Brown displayed little enthusiasm while talking with him. That may have reflected a lingering sensitivity, in the wake of the Guardian article, to reporters asking questions during his appearances, or it may have simply been part of his strategy of declining to be interviewed by media outlets from outside of New Hampshire. (Brown also refused to be interviewed for this ­article.) Whatever the reason, Brown stood with his arms crossed, looking at the floor, as he ­described what his daughters had been up to of late, and also his own recent athletic doings, including riding in the Pan-Mass Challenge and, just the day before, climbing Mt. Washington, “in the pouring rain!” Costa smiled and nodded politely for a time, and then headed back to his seat.

Brown turned and began making his way to the lectern, but he didn’t get very far ­before he stopped to talk with a smiling older woman who’d been waiting for him. Once she had Brown’s ­attention, the woman suddenly became angry, loudly berating him over his comments about the assault-weapons ban. Brown gently asked her to lower her voice and invited her to sit and discuss the topic.

He took a seat in the row in front of her and swiveled around to look at her. “I have a lifetime A-minus rating from the NRA,” he said softly.

“Except when you—”

Brown interrupted, insisting that his positions on gun control have remained consistent. They went back and forth for a few minutes. “I haven’t changed anything!” Brown insisted.

“Are you kidding?”

“We’re having a conversation,” Brown replied. “I was deeply moved by that whole issue. I just thought it was appropriate to raise the mental-health issue.”

The exchange ended when Brown’s wife, the former Boston television news reporter Gail Huff, walked by dressed in a short red dress and high heels. Suddenly, Huff stumbled and nearly fell; Brown lunged gracefully, his arm outstretched to steady her, but she managed to regain her footing on her own.

“You have great balance,” said the gun-rights woman.

“We practice that,” Huff replied.

 

It’s rare for a former U.S Senator to regain the position in a second state. In fact, it’s a feat that has been achieved only twice, and not since the 1800s. It’s a significant challenge, and from the moment Brown ­announced his candidacy last April, he had two important questions to answer. The first was whether he could convince New Hampshire and its famously demanding—and peculiar—­electorate that he truly belonged. “There was some question about how quickly he would fit in,” said Dean Spiliotes, a political analyst who teaches at Southern New Hampshire University. “Scott Brown has never been part of the political discussion up here. He’s never been part of the political discourse or flow of information. If people find it jarring to hear you talk about New Hampshire values, you’re dead in the water.”

Brown did have a connection to the state—he owns a vacation home in Rye Beach, which last December became his full-time residence, and he’d lived in the state as a toddler. And his campaigning style played particularly well in New Hampshire. During his successful 2010 campaign in Massachusetts, Brown made the rounds of county fairs, civic gatherings, and small-town diners in his barn jacket and his pickup—a grassroots approach that New Hampshire voters appreciate. “Generally, the reviews have been pretty good,” Spiliotes said. “He’s just sort of comfortable at a retail level, and I think that’s helped him with the carpetbagger question.”

The second big question was whether Brown could convince voters to abandon Shaheen, a popular senator, a former governor, and a fixture of the state’s political establishment for decades. Heading into the race, Shaheen was on no one’s list of endangered incumbents. Brown’s strategy has been to portray Shaheen as a knee-jerk Obama supporter. “Jeanne Shaheen agrees with President Obama 99 percent of the time,” Brown has said again and again on the campaign trail. When Mitt Romney came to New Hampshire to endorse Brown in July, he accused Shaheen of being Obama’s “Simon Says Senator.” In September, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie traveled to New Hampshire and ridiculed Shaheen for what he characterized as her constant support of Obama’s policies. “I don’t agree with myself 99 percent of the time,” Christie said.

Arnie Arnesen, a liberal radio and television commentator, said the attempt to paint ­Shaheen as an Obama puppet won’t fly. “Jeannie doesn’t offend anyone,” said Arnesen, who was New Hampshire’s Democratic nominee for governor in 1992, and doesn’t always get along with Shaheen. “She’s a little like wallpaper. She’s really hard to demonize—a nice, pleasant, easygoing woman. And we’ve had experience with her. We’ve been hanging out with her for 30 years.”

In September, Brown handily won the Republican primary, setting up the general-­election showdown that everyone had been expecting. Not long after, Shaheen’s steady lead began to narrow, and many polls were showing a statistical tie. That wasn’t ­altogether surprising, given that races often tighten this way. What was unusual, though, were the candidates’ personal-image numbers. Though her lead was shrinking, Shaheen remained personally popular in the state. Brown, despite closing the gap, continued to see his personal numbers sag. A CNN poll from mid-September found the candidates tied with 48 percent support. In the same poll, 54 percent of likely voters viewed Shaheen favorably, compared with 42 percent who viewed her unfavorably. For Brown it was 46 percent favorable, 48 percent unfavorable.

Longtime political observers were confounded by the results. What was going on? Were the polls off? Was New Hampshire ready for a change?

 

When Brown entered the race, his task was to tack just far enough to the right to weather the Republican primary—without alienating the more-moderate general-­election voters. For instance, in September the state Republican Party adopted a hard-line anti-abortion position. When Shaheen accused Brown and the Republicans of being “dangerously wrong” on the issue and “out of touch” with women, Brown’s spokeswoman responded with a statement saying that he did not support the new language: “Scott Brown is pro-choice and will protect a woman’s right to choose.”

At other times, though, Brown’s attempts to broaden his appeal with moderates can be almost comical. This fall, Laura Knoy of New Hampshire Public Radio asked him about the Women’s Right to Know Act, which Brown had cosponsored as a Massachusetts state senator. The bill would have required women to wait 24 hours, and look at images of fetal development, before they could get an abortion. Though the Boston Globe had written about the bill during Brown’s 2010 and 2012 Massachusetts Senate campaigns, Brown told Knoy that he couldn’t recall it. “I’m not familiar with the specific bill that you’re referring to,” he said. “I’m not sure if it’s wrong, but I’ve voted on probably 8,000 bills, give or take, in my lifetime.” Knoy twice asked variations of the same question, and each time Brown insisted that he wasn’t familiar with the bill.

 

One issue on which brown has held firm, however, is the Affordable Care Act. ­Denouncing Obamacare served Brown well during his successful 2010 run in ­Massachusetts. He drove his truck all over the state, promising to be the deciding vote against the law’s implementation. Obamacare was passed before he had a chance to vote against it—a bitter disappointment for its foes, but one in which Brown sensed opportunity as he weighed a Senate run in New Hampshire. When he announced his candidacy, his plan had been to blast Shaheen for her vote in favor of Obamacare, thereby tying her to a law that was broadly unpopular in New Hampshire, especially since its troubled national rollout. The problem for Brown, though, was that Obamacare was turning out to be quite successful, so much so that Republicans all over the country were abandoning the Obamacare attack. Brown was not yet one of them, but listening to him on the campaign trail, you sometimes wondered why.

Shifting politics aside, Brown has had trouble presenting himself as a credible critic of Obamacare because, as a state senator in Massachusetts, he voted for the law on which it was based, Romneycare, and also because, as a U.S. senator, he took advantage of a key benefit of Obamacare—the ability to keep adult children up to the age of 26 on their parents’ health insurance plan—even as he voted several times to repeal the law. Brown insists that there are critical differences ­between Obamacare and Romneycare, but his main criticism of the federal law seems to be that it’s trampling on states’ rights. He believes each state should be free to devise its own plan. Because Obamacare was ­imposed from the top down, Brown sees it as a disastrous law that is choking the life out of New Hampshire’s economy.

At the town-hall meeting in August, Brown insisted that Obamacare’s employer mandate was keeping New Hampshire businesses from ramping up their hiring. The mandate, which hasn’t actually kicked in yet, stipulates that any business employing at least 50 people must either provide health insurance to ­workers who average more than 30 hours a week, or pay a fine. The employer mandate, Brown said, “is dramatically affecting decisions on how people are hiring and growing and spending. We visited a very successful business and they said, ‘We’re keeping our numbers under 50 because we don’t want to be subjected to those challenges of adhering to Obamacare.’”

A young woman from Exeter named Anna stood up and said that Obamacare had been a godsend for the family of her best friend. Her friend’s mother has cancer, she said, but was able to keep her health insurance after her husband changed jobs—because Obamacare prevented his new insurance company from denying coverage for preexisting conditions. Anna said she understood that Brown wasn’t suggesting simply doing away with Obamacare, that he wanted to replace it with a New Hampshire–designed plan. “But if you repeal the Affordable Care Act and there’s a lag between that time and the time there might be an alternative in place, what would those people do?” she asked. “And if you do keep that protection in place, how are you going to pay for it?”

Brown said he would keep current benefits in place until the new plan was ­created and could replace them. He said the new plan would be cheaper than Obamacare, but otherwise didn’t specify how it would be different or better. “I believe we can have a plan that does not mandate and tell us how to do it, respects our rights and freedoms, and also addresses the things that you care about and that others care about, and that we can do it cheaper through competition, and having it be tailored specifically to us by bringing you and other people to the table to come up with a solution.” Later, Anna told me that the whole thing didn’t sound very thought out.

 

A week after the event in Nashua, Scott Brown conducted another town-hall meeting, this time at Pinkerton Academy high school, in Derry. Unlike the drowsy affair in Nashua, this one, focused on foreign policy, was crackling with excitement; Brown’s co-host for the event was John McCain, who ­remains a revered figure among New Hampshire Republicans. McCain twice won the state’s GOP presidential primary, and his success here is often attributed to his skill with the town-hall format.

Half a dozen television cameras were set up on risers in a Pinkerton Academy gymnasium an hour before the event was scheduled to begin; 200 or so beige folding chairs were arranged in front of a stage backed with a giant American flag.

Brown and McCain took to the stage as country music played. Brown seemed much more energized than he’d been in Nashua, perhaps because it was the beginning of the day rather than the end, perhaps because he believed he could make a more-cogent critique of U.S. foreign policy than he’d been able to of Obamacare, or perhaps because he was sharing the stage with such a popular figure. Whatever the reason, Brown was clearly fired up. We are living in terrifying time, he said: Everywhere you look, existential threats are lurking. “ISIS makes Al Qaeda look like Boy Scouts!” Brown thundered. “The way that they’re treating the people that they’ve captured, by beheading them, and doing other atrocities. You have situations all over the world. What is the goal of ISIS? It’s to ­actually get to our country, and get resources as they’re doing it, and export terrorism all around the region and the world. You look at what’s happening in Ukraine with Russia. You see what’s happening in Israel being attacked and harassed daily with Hamas. There are so many issues on the table right now that are affecting our foreign policy. And what is the president doing? He’s on vacation, he’s golfing.” Add it all up, Brown said, and the inescapable conclusion was “Our allies don’t trust us, our foes don’t fear or respect us. We’re in trouble.”

McCain called for the expansion of military air strikes to Syria to stop ISIS (Obama would do just that less than a month later). “War is a terrible thing,” McCain said. “The object of conflict is to break the enemy’s will. You don’t break the enemy’s will by just very gradually increasing your efforts against them. If ISIS is a threat to the United States of America, we have to do what’s necessary to destroy them, without sending American combat troops there.”

The event wound down after about an hour, and then the country music started up again. As McCain made his way down
the steps from the stage, he was swallowed up in a crush of hugs and backslaps. The senator, recognizing supporters from his runs for president, embraced person after person. The TV cameras began to encircle him, jostling for position as reporters shouted questions over the music. Brown stood on the outskirts of the scrum, his face illuminated by the lights from the television cameras.

He reached out to shake a hand or two, but it was difficult to get anyone’s attention amid all the excitement. Finally, he nodded at two of his handlers and they slipped out a side door.

McCain emerged from the gymnasium 15 minutes later, beaming, and hopped into a large black SUV.

Scott Brown was already gone.


John Wolfson
John Wolfson John Wolfson, Editor at Large at Boston Magazine bmagdigital+jwolfson@gmail.com