WASHINGTON – Bob Smith may not have been the greatest legislator in his two terms as a U.S. senator from New Hampshire, but at least he was from the state he was running in.
That can’t be said of the winner Tuesday night in the New Hampshire Republican Senate primary, Scott Brown. Yes, the Scott Brown who was dubbed “America’s Sexiest Man” by Cosmopolitan magazine in 1992 and went on to pull off a stunning upset in 2010 and win Ted Kennedy’s seat in a special election – in Massachusetts.
After losing his 2012 bid to keep the seat to now-Senator Elizabeth Warren (a phenomenon herself, but that’s another story), Brown became like an unaccompanied minor crossing the border to look for a better life. In a midterm-election year when renting space in a friend’s house (see Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts) or living in your family home (see Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu) is a big issue, it’s amazing that running in a state you only lived in as a toddler or vacationed in as an adult wasn’t a nonstarter.
While Smith wasn’t able to get the support of establishment Republicans, former Senate colleagues such as John McCain came out for Brown, as did former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Brown now sails into the general election in a dead heat with the incumbent Democratic senator, Jeanne Shaheen.
What made Brown the horse to back was his 2010 come-from-nowhere win against Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, the stuff of political legend. Brown, an unknown state legislator at the time, managed in three weeks to defeat Coakley, who had won her primary with a 19-point advantage and benefited from a 3-to-1 Democratic Party registration edge. Brown set up headquarters at the former Boston offices of Kennedy, whose death in 2009 led to the special election.
He had Kennedy hair and teeth and openly appealed to that Camelot mojo by putting up an ad in which his face gradually replaced that of John F. Kennedy, extolling tax cuts to spur the economy.
Meanwhile, Coakley mused to the Boston Globe that it was a questionable use of time to be out shaking hands outside Fenway Park, even as Brown was doing just that. She compounded the heresy by calling legendary Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling “just another Yankee fan.” And she spent time raising money with lobbyists in Washington while Brown went after “money bombs” online that raised $2.2 million the first week and $14.2 million overall. Brown also made much of his service in the National Guard, giving him national security gravitas.
By the time he walked into the U.S. Capitol, Brown was a national celebrity. Jon Hamm, of “Mad Men” fame, portrayed him on “Saturday Night Live,” he was profiled on “60 Minutes” and David Letterman made fun of his beefcake spread in Cosmopolitan. Brown wrote a book about overcoming childhood abuse to rise to the Senate.
In New Hampshire, Brown barely paid attention to his primary opponents and focused instead on campaigning against Shaheen, as if he was sure to win. He doesn’t sweat the wonky policy stuff – did he just forget that he believed in global warming before he didn’t believe in it? – but he sure can slap a back and dangle a baby. He’s tireless: canoeing (he had a Democratic tracker shadowing him in another boat hoping for a Jimmy Carter killer-rabbit moment), going to picnics, marching in parades, taking questions at town halls and holding his own in debates. For much of that time, Shaheen’s been stuck in Washington trying to avoid being vulnerable to attacks for missing votes.
When he represented Massachusetts, Brown was careful not to scare the horses, and he benefited from tea party votes without ever identifying as one of them, so he’s not running as Ted Cruz. Now he’s working to tie Shaheen so tightly to President Barack Obama that Houdini couldn’t undo the ropes. There’s no town hall where he doesn’t bring up Obamacare and immigration (his first negative ad was on the border crisis). And, of course, he can pull jobs out of his hat.
Shaheen is one of the most popular politicians in New Hampshire history, the only woman in the country to serve as both a governor and a senator, and she will probably draw women to the polls for a midterm that usually sees a big drop-off in the female vote. Shaheen will try to tie Brown to a strain of Republicanism exhibited by the party’s most visible extremists, who are unpopular in a state that’s conservative but likes its politics civil.
The race will prove to be one of the most expensive, with $9 million raised so far. Last week, Shaheen put up her first negative ad, which tied Brown to oil companies. A new negative ad against Shaheen put up by a conservative political action committee had to be sharply altered: It charged that her wealth “surged while in public office.” Her financial disclosure forms show the opposite, with her personal net worth dropping by as much as $1 million.
Whoever wins will make history: Shaheen would become the first to be re-elected as both a governor and a senator. Should he win, Brown would be the third senator in history to serve in multiple states. Or he could be the first male politician to be defeated twice for the Senate by two different women in two different states.
Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.