When Aaron Hanscom, PJM’s managing editor, asked me to write a piece on the Massachusetts Senate race about 10 days ago, I begged off the assignment. At the time, Brown was considered something of a sacrificial lamb — a Republican running in the most Democratic state in the nation — and even though there was some positive buzz swirling around his candidacy, I didn’t feel like writing another piece about the moribund state of the GOP in the Northeast and why Brown was destined to lose.
Today, I’m glad I didn’t write that piece, although many others did. It just goes to show that American politics has the infinite capacity to surprise, to delight, and to overturn our silly, supercilious ideas about the predictability of free people when confronted with a choice that dramatically affects their future.
On January 5, pollster Scott Rasmussen had Democrat Martha Coakley ahead of Republican State Senator Scott Brown by 9 points. That poll raised a few eyebrows given the Democrats’ huge advantage in registration and the presumed advantages of Coakley: name recognition, awash in cash, and the intangible of running for a seat held so long by Ted Kennedy.
But something entirely unpredictable was happening that would alter the dynamic of the race and propel Brown into the competitive position he enjoys today. The people of Massachusetts began to realize that sending Scott Brown to the United States Senate is a golden opportunity to let the politicians in D.C. know that they are fed up with a stinking economy, the jobless recovery, the maniacal spending, and the obsessive concentration on a health care reform bill even liberal Massachusettians oppose.
And Coakley played her role as heir apparent to this elitist, liberal legacy perfectly. She rarely campaigned among ordinary voters. She refused to debate. And in the last week, she has all but imploded with a series of gaffes that revealed the candidate to be insensitive, clueless, and not ready for prime time.
Couple that with voters taking a good look at the dynamic Brown, and the 9-point gap in the polls on January 5 has morphed into a 4-point lead by Brown in a Suffolk University poll out Friday. Meanwhile, a Pajamas Media-CrossTarget poll has Brown by a whopping 15 points.
But beyond voters wanting to send a message, there is something else happening in Massachusetts. A new kind of Republican is bidding to redefine the GOP in the Northeast with a message of fiscal discipline and low taxes, but with a “socially conscious” agenda as well.
You can’t pigeonhole Scott Brown. He’s a conservative — but he’s not. He’s a squishy RINO — but he’s not. He’s pro-choice, pro-gun, pro-consumer protection, pro-free market, and pro-environment. He opposes gay marriage but supported a regional cap-and-trade scheme — a vote he now says was a mistake. He supported the Massachusetts health insurance plan promoted by Mitt Romney with its individual mandate, although he now says that they need to get costs under control.
The picture that emerges after examining this fellow’s record and his position on the issues is one of an independent thinker with conservative principles who doesn’t allow ideology to dominate his thinking or his politics. Prudent, pragmatic, reasonable, but not squishy about where he stands (see his fight to repeal the sales tax increase and his battle over gay marriage).
He appears to be thoughtful and nuanced. His abortion stance mixes classic libertarian thinking with the concerns of a parent with two daughters. He grants women the right to choose and opposes partial birth abortions, but he wants strict parental notification requirements as well.
Boris Shor, a professor of public policy at the University of Chicago, tries to find a place for Brown on the ideological spectrum:
What about Scott Brown? How liberal or conservative is he? We have evidence from multiple sources. The Boston Globe, in its editorial endorsing Coakley, called Brown “in the mode of the national GOP.” Liberal bloggers have tried to tie him to the tea party movement, making him out to be very conservative. Chuck Schumer called him “far-right.”
In 2002, he filled out a Votesmart survey on his policy positions in the context of running for the State Senate. Looking through the answers doesn’t reveal too much beyond that he is a pro-choice, anti-tax, pro-gun Republican. His interest group ratings are all over the map. Business and gun rights groups typically rate him very highly, labor and and environmental groups have rated him both middling and high over time. The teacher’s union rated him low in 2001, and high in 2005.
So what will conservatives make of such a man? A hit with labor unions and environmental groups — sometimes. Strong anti-tax cred. Pro-choice, but not in-your-face about it. Beloved of teachers unions — sometimes. Proven fiscal hawk. A man’s man who loves triathlons, has served in the National Guard for 30 years, has a beautiful wife, and drives a GMC Canyon truck with nearly 200,000 miles on it.
Right now, he is the darling of the right, with endorsements from the tea party groups and online conservative activists. He is, after all, that coveted “41st vote” on health care reform. But beyond destroying Obama’s dream of a government takeover of health care, how “reliable” a vote will he be for Republicans in the Senate?
My guess is that Scott Brown is bound to disappoint conservatives, and it will happen sooner rather than later. As Boris Shor points out in his analysis, Brown is conservative — for Massachusetts. Just as Dede Scozzafava was considered to the right of most New York Republican legislators even though the perception of her outside of the Empire State was quite different, so too is Scott Brown considered a man of the right even though many of his votes would be seen as conservative apostasy outside of New England.
The Massachusetts Senate race is bringing into stark relief the choice faced by movement conservatives in 2010: pragmatism or principle? Supporting a Brown victory will probably kill ObamaCare and slow the liberal tax-and-spend agenda, if not destroy it altogether. But supporting Brown means backing a candidate who won’t always vote the way conservatives wish on a wide variety of issues. Some conservatives, as Andrew Ian Dodge points out, are sitting out the race, refusing to vote for someone who clearly doesn’t support their positions on some issues. Others are swallowing their differences with Brown and are working to send him to Washington.
If Scott Brown was running in South Carolina, or Texas, or Wyoming, he probably couldn’t win a GOP primary for county sheriff. But Brown is running in the most liberal state and the most progressive section of the country. He is seen by the locals as “conservative.” Does someone from Florida, or Ohio, or Alabama have the right to say otherwise?
It appears from the record that Brown has an open mind, does his homework, and is a true independent thinker. Is there room in the GOP and the conservative movement for such as he? Will other, less-than-perfect conservatives who run in the Northeast in 2010 get similar levels of support from national activists and party pros?
If not, then conservatives may as well kiss the Northeast goodbye and get used to those backbenches they’re sitting on, because the chances of reclaiming a majority in Congress will have gone a wasting.