POLITICS DECEMBER 11, 2013
Scott Brown appears ready pick up his electoral career in New Hampshire. The notion has been in the air since the spring, but only recently has it begun to seduce the imaginations of local power brokers. Though Brown has brushed off reporters thus far, he opened a political action committee in the state a few months ago and last week penned an op-ed excoriating ObamaCare’s effects on hospitals in the state. It now appears obvious that he wants to cut ties with Massachusetts—where he was the sole Republican officeholder of any note just eleven months ago—and challenge New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen. And he absolutely should.
There is a great deal that is silly about the politics in the United States, but nothing more fatuous and bizarre than the widely-held belief that an elected representative must somehow form a lasting relationship with a place, or embody its character and traditions, to ably work on behalf of its people. This expectation forced ex-senator Richard Lugar to go to extreme lengths to prove his residency in Indiana—a state that, in normal circumstances, no sane person would willingly claim as their home—and allowed his primary opponent to successfully paint him as absent and out of touch, costing him reelection and millions of Hoosiers a skilled and popular lawmaker. Even now, Liz Cheney must dodge accusations of carpetbagging in her own Wyoming Senate race. But that (truthful) designation couldn’t possibly be more important than her manifest insanity. A candidate’s policy preferences matter infinitely more than which college football team he roots for. If Brown, like Robert Kennedy and Hillary Clinton before him, were to run and win in a state he hadn’t lived in, it would go a long way toward proving that point.
I should mention from the outset that Brown could probably win again in Massachusetts. Recent polls have shown that his popularity remains fairly strong, and he’s even viewed favorably there by about 30 percent of Democrats. But why would a canny politician choose to hang his hat in a place that is nationally famous for supporting the guys in the other party? President Obama delivered a 23-point drubbing to Mitt Romney there last November, winning all 14 counties in the process. None of the statewide positions, from attorney general to auditor to secretary of the commonwealth, is held by a Republican, and yesterday’s special election ensured that the entire congressional delegation is a bluewash as well.
Even Brown’s momentous January 2010 Senate victory seems, in retrospect, like an aberration. A close win against a rather weak Democratic candidate during an off-year election (when masses of Democratic voters tend to stay home), at the exact moment that nationwide disapproval of the Democrat-led effort to pass ObamaCare reached its boiling point? Those don’t sound like the makings of a world-beating Republican iconoclast. Notwithstanding some early, inflated assessments of his popularity, he’ll never be a juggernaut in such a liberal citadel.
That’s not necessarily true in New Hampshire. The downside of being perceived as a border-hopping opportunist is heavily outweighed by the major advantage to Brown of playing on more neutral ground. The state may be trending bluer each passing year, but it is still much friendlier to an aspirant of Brown’s Rockefeller Republican cast than its southerly neighbor. Its voters are susceptible to rightward surges, as in 2010, when they elected sizable Republican majorities in both houses of the state legislature and installed conservative Kelly Ayotte as senator. If local dissatisfaction with the president and his party remains high, 2014 could take the same turn—and Brown is already within striking distance of Shaheen in some polls.
The geographical shift would be historically rare, but not a total abnormality. As local observers are fond of pointing out, the legendary Daniel Webster made the same passage in reverse about 200 years ago, moving with his family from his New Hampshire House district to Boston, where he was later elected both congressman and senator. The little-known James Shields actually did him one better, serving as senator for Illinois, Minnesota, and Missouri at different points in the 19th century. Hell, Brown isn’t even the first moderate Massachusetts Republican to seek office out of state—former governor Bill Weld made a respectable effort to capture that post in New York just a few years ago.
Win or lose, Brown would be performing a valuable service in taking his talents to Concord. What difference does it make, after all, what side of an arbitrarily drawn line he now lives on? The greatest cultural differences between the two states—flinty, independent-minded libertarians vs. fuzzy-headed academics—were overblown to begin with, and have in any event been persistently eroded after years of northward migration by cheerful Massachusetts colonizers. People on either side of the border travel up I-93 for foliage festivals and weekends on Lake Winnipesaukee (Brown himself owns a summer home in New Hampshire) or else down it to commute to work and enjoy the pleasures of Boston. Are we to believe that Brown is so pure a product of his native state that he simply couldn’t represent the views of people who live 60 miles away, where he takes ski trips and shops for tax-free booze?
I should disclose that all of this is self-serving: Many Massachusetts denizens, myself among them, wouldn’t be grieved to lose Brown’s meathead remarks and hilarious penchant for (apparently) drunk tweeting. As a lawmaker, he always reminded us of a rough-hewn uncle from Manchester or Lebanon: a little embarrassing, perhaps inordinately attached to fireworks, but essentially okay. If he’d only been born in New Hampshire (indeed, he erroneously thinks that he was), he might have had a more natural political constituency. Maybe he can still have it.
Correction: This piece originally claimed that Mary Cheney was a candidate for Senate in Wyoming. In fact, her sister, Liz Cheney, is running for the office.