The Once And (Increasingly-Unlikely-To-Be) Future Senator

Conventional wisdom among pundits suddenly suggests Scott Brown would have a hard time winning the special Senate race.

Image Credit: Diane Beckwith Zink via Wikimedia Commons

Reading across the political media this week, it seems pundits have realized (at last) that Sen. Scott Brown is probably not the shoo-in to replace John Kerry that some once considered him.

Before President Obama decided to nominate Kerry for Secretary of State, those with a glancing knowledge of Massachusetts politics assumed he’d settle on someone else, someone like Susan Rice, to avoid giving Brown an opening. An Atlantic Wire post describing the likelihood of Susan Rice’s nomination noted that, “the president is well aware that nominating John Kerry to Secretary of State … may cost Democrats a Senate seat they picked up last week (which would probably go to Scott Brown).” As Rice’s potential withered and Obama finally settled on Kerry, this idea that he was handing Brown a Senate seat quickly hardened into a kind of conventional wisdom.

There are some who continue to promote that idea. Writing in the Boston Globe this weekend, Tom Keane says:

Scott Brown is this state’s once and likely future Senator — the beneficiary, this holiday season, of some striking good fortune.

Brown undoubtedly had a gloomy Thanksgiving; he had, after all, just lost to Elizabeth Warren. But since then, things have brightened. With John Kerry now President Obama’s nominee for secretary of state, another Senate seat should soon be up for grabs.

By our count, it’s actually been a semi-poor month for Brown, because the once pervasive sense that the Senate seat was his for the taking has undergone some hits. A few weeks ago, Politico ran the bombshell headline, “Scott Brown no shoo-in as John Kerry successor.” Slate’s Dave Weigel praised the article for “finally reset[ting] the conventional wisdom.”

People like The Globe’s Keane think Brown will win because the off-cycle special election replicates the conditions under which he won his first Senate election – lower turnout is good for Republicans in Massachusetts. Here’s Keane on that point:

The beneficiaries of such contests are those who already have statewide name recognition — something none of the congressional candidates can claim. What’s more, Brown, fresh off his last campaign, already has staff and infrastructure ready for another effort. His voter list is still up-to-date. Add to that a nationwide network of donors, and Brown looks formidable.

The Politico article only hints at the flaws in this kind of argument. Over at the MassPoliticsProfs blog, political scientist Jerold Duquette has been bludgeoning it to death in post after post in which he critiques those who present Brown as the obvious successor. Not all special elections are alike, Duquette notes, and the 2010 contest was especially uniqiue because it united progressive disinterest with historic Tea Party movement enthusiasm:

The unavoidable reality is that Brown can’t win in 2013 (barring unforeseeable events) because he has no realistic hope of an outsized conservative turnout and an under-sized progressive turnout, both of which are prerequisites to victory for a Republican in a special election. In other words, without the very peculiar composition of the electorate that turned out on January 19, 2010, Republicans cannot win a special election for the US Senate in Massachusetts.

Known he-witch Nate Silver makes a similar point (somewhat less emphatically) in his New York Times column:

The overall political environment is not likely to be as favorable to Democrats in a special election as it was in November (although it also will probably not be as unfavorable to them as in 2010). And there could be an element of sympathy for Mr. Brown among some swing voters.

Despite all that, it is difficult to view Mr. Brown as much better than even money.

But what’s the best sign that the winds have turned against The Once and Future Senator? Perhaps it’s the lead column in the Boston Herald this morning by Joe Battenfeld, arguing that Brown should give this 2013 race a pass and instead run for governor. “While Democrats frantically try to block Scott Brown from going back to the U.S. Senate, there are also increasing fears he could pose an even bigger threat as the next Massachusetts governor,” he writes. This is cloaked in the Herald’s typical pump-up-the-base hackery, but it smells an awful lot like even they have figured out that Brown’s better off throwing his hat in some other ring.