Is Scott Brown maybe NOT destined to sneak his way back into the Senate?
In my occasional (these days) reflective moments, I ponder why it bothers me so much that Scott Brown may slither his way back into the Senate as a result of the appointment of Sen. John Kerry to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Howie, you may recall, expressed concern about that, but much greater concern about the ascension of NJ Sen. Bob Menendez to the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. I don't lose sleep over that, but the thought of that damned Scott Brown getting a Chance card passage back to the Senate, a place he never had any business being, drives me nuts.
After all, even I will acknowledge that Scott isn't the worst specimen to grace the Republican side of the Senate aisle in modern times, and in fact is one of the less debased -- not that that's much of a distinction. And I think maybe the key to my distress is that that thing I just wrote about the Senate being "a place he never had any business being." Sure, his Democratic opponent in the January 2010 special election (to serve out the remainder of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy's term) ran a lousy campaign and deserved to lose, but that doesn't mean he deserved to win. How smart did you have to be to see that just about everything about his pose as a rough 'n' tumble man-of-the-folks was a fraud? And he got away with it. People flagrantly getting away with stuff tends to get to me.
So I take heart from a WaPo op-ed piece by Mark Horan, described as "a senior vice president for Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications" who "has worked on numerous Massachusetts political campaigns." Rasky Baerlein, I see, bills itself as "one of the largest independent public relations and public affairs firms in New England," with offices in Boston and Washington, DC.
Finally, Republican strategists got what they wanted for Christmas: John Kerry, nominated to be secretary of state. Now the door has swung open for Scott Brown and he can breeze through to give the GOP its first pickup of the 2014 cycle. Or so the theory goes.
Not so fast, everyone.
It’s easy to forget the toxic environment that propelled Brown to his remarkable 2010 victory — and how quickly it has dissipated.
When Brown won the January 2010 special election to fill the Senate seat vacated by the death of Edward M. Kennedy, unemployment in Massachusetts was about 9 percent. Fifty-five percent of registered voters thought the commonwealth was on the wrong track. Ninety percent viewed the recession as far from over (even though economists were already seeing a slight uptick), and 70 percent thought the state’s economy would worsen over the next year.
Protest was in the air. Jeering crowds greeted President Obama when he campaigned in Boston for Brown’s opponent.
The environment was electric, and Brown seized on it. In a debate, he jumped on the moderator’s claim that he was running for “Teddy Kennedy’s seat” with a potent retort: “With all due respect, it’s not the Kennedy seat. It’s not the Democrats’ seat. It’s the people’s seat.”
That line — which Brown adopted for the rest of the campaign — captured the raw anti-establishment sentiment coalescing among Republicans, suburban independents and working-class Democrats, a loose confederation of pocketbook populists ticked off about everything from market crashes to Obamacare to auto bailouts.
But that moment came and went. By the fall of 2010, just nine months after Brown’s victory, Massachusetts voters reelected Gov. Deval Patrick and rejected a tax-cutting ballot by a 14-point margin. This fall, the state gave liberal star Elizabeth Warren an eight-point win over Brown and approved the use of medical marijuana by 26 points. In a sense, Massachusetts regained its blue footing almost as fast as it lost it.
This is not the first time the state has flipped from its traditional blue to red and back to blue. Since Republicans count for less than 12 percent of the state’s registered voters, they need a huge chunk of unaligned voters and maybe a few Democrats to win. With no social issues to fall back on — same-sex marriage has been on the books in Massachusetts since 2004; roughly two-thirds of voters are pro-choice — Massachusetts Republicans seem able to cobble together a majority only in tough economic times.
Thus, Bill Weld became governor when the recession hit in the early 1990s, and Mitt Romney did so after the dot-com bubble burst. But both lost Senate races — Romney to Kennedy in 1994; Weld to Kerry in 1996 — when state unemployment was under 5 percent.
Which brings us back to Brown. The senator struggled throughout 2012 to find his footing in a gentler, more forgiving political environment. The unemployment rate in Massachusetts had dropped to 6 percent as the summer began (and is even lower in Greater Boston), and the mood in the Bay State had turned sunnier: A Suffolk University poll in October found 63 percent of the electorate saying the state was on the right track, a 30-point turnaround from the Brown special election.
If he runs for the seat Kerry is poised to vacate, Brown is likely to face the same problem: how to define himself in a time of relative economic stability and liberal resurgence, punctuated by President Obama’s 23-point win in Massachusetts. By the time Brown lost to Warren last month, his support had dropped significantly among independent women and Democrats.
To be sure, Brown has assets. A poll published this week suggested he is enjoying a sort of post-defeat honeymoon: He is viewed favorably by 58 percent of the electorate. In head-to-head match-ups, he led several congressmen (all of whom lack his statewide recognition) by 17 points or more. Before he leaves the Senate, he may have a chance to raise taxes on the rich, which would enhance his reach-across-the-aisle persona.
But short of the country hurtling over the fiscal cliff and into a recession, Brown won’t have the economic turmoil that fueled his first victory and is often key to Republican success in Massachusetts. As he knows from living in the Bay State all his life, ferocious storms yield an angry, almost black surf. But when the storm goes out to sea, the ocean reverts to its natural color: blue. For the moment, Massachusetts is blue again.