For the better part of a year, the most tantalizing question in New Hampshire politics has been: What the heck is Scott Brown up to?
The former senator from Massachusetts seems to be popping up everywhere in the state he now claims as his home. He has appeared at Republican fundraisers, Lincoln Day dinners, county GOP gatherings and, most recently, shirtless across three columns of the front page of the Union Leader, the state’s largest newspaper.
Brown was one of 600 people who plunged into the frigid Atlantic off Hampton Beach on Feb. 2 to raise money for the Special Olympics.
“It’s the middle of winter. Scott Brown has his shirt off, and it can only mean one thing. He’s running for US Senate in New Hampshire,” Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi wrote of the hoopla surrounding the latest display of buffness from someone whom Cosmopolitan magazine declared “America’s Sexiest Man” in 1982.
On the other hand, Brown is not doing the private spadework that would be expected of someone who is seriously preparing to challenge Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D. He has no organization or staff, nor is he making the obligatory rounds of the Granite State’s GOP leaders.
“I don’t know anyone who does campaigns in New Hampshire who has talked with him,” said Tom Rath, a former state attorney general who is a key figure in GOP politics.
There are also hints that Brown might be setting his sights higher than the Senate. In addition to moving to the state that holds the nation’s first presidential primary, he lately has made two trips to Iowa, site of the first caucuses.
Or it could all be an elaborate fan dance by a faded phenom, aimed at maintaining the kind of interest that fuels speaking fees and television appearances. Then again, maybe it is just what Brown says it is: He is in New Hampshire because that is where his family needs him to be.
“He’s been able to sustain a buzz for eight or nine months now, by just giving the ball a little tap now and then,” said Fergus Cullen, a former New Hampshire GOP chairman.
Divining Brown’s intentions is not merely a matter of curiosity for both parties nationally. When he ran for the Senate as an obscure Massachusetts legislator in 2010, it was on a promise to be the “41st senator,” who could give his party the number it needed to filibuster President Barack Obama’s programs. By putting New Hampshire into play in 2014, Brown has the potential to be the 51st — the one who returns control of the chamber to the GOP.
If you spend any time around Brown these days, you don’t come away with a sense that he has much appetite for undertaking a third tough Senate race in four years — or for returning to a polarized capital he describes as “broken.”
A month after moving into what used to be his family’s summer place in Rye, “I’m really, quite honestly, a little unorganized,” Brown said in an interview, adding that he has been focused on unpacking and taking care of things such as getting his driver’s license and making sure the mail gets forwarded.
And there are other demands. Both his daughters are getting married this summer, within a month of each other. His mother, who lives in New Hampshire, is in fragile health, requiring more of his attention.
“To just jump in and say I’m going to run for the United States Senate against a popular incumbent,” he said, “it takes a little bit more than just winging it.”
Yet that is precisely what many Republicans have been urging him to do as the June 13 filing date gets closer.
Brown was the likable everyman who stunned the political world in 2010 by coming from 30 points behind to win a special election to fill the late Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts. But he was soundly beaten two years later by Democrat Elizabeth Warren.
Those who would like to see him run say Brown is a more natural fit for the famously independent Granite State than he was for liberal Massachusetts. They also note that the states share a lot of connective tissue: the same media markets, a stream of people who commute daily between the two for work and a legion of transplants who have moved north to escape the cost of living and taxes of Massachusetts.
“He’s got a very blue-collar, charismatic way about him,” said Jim Merrill, a top Republican strategist in New Hampshire. “If he gets in, he’ll have to do the hard work. He’ll have to earn it. But a lot of people will flock to his banner, as well.”
The latest WMUR Granite State poll, conducted by the University of New Hampshire, suggests that Shaheen, the only woman in U.S. history to serve as both a governor and a senator, could be vulnerable as she seeks a second term in Washington. Her approval rating has dipped to 50 percent, 10 points lower than where she stood a year ago. But the poll also indicates that if a Shaheen-Brown matchup were held today, she would have a 10-point advantage, with 14 percent of voters undecided.
What is probably at least as significant as poll numbers for a race that has yet to happen is the fact that so many are treating it as if it were already underway. Shaheen’s website features regular attacks on Brown, and the League of Conservation Voters last week launched a $200,000 television ad campaign across the state highlighting Brown’s ties to and support for the oil industry.
In January, the conservative group Americans for Prosperity ran ads against Shaheen noting her crucial vote for the passage of the Affordable Care Act.The health-care law is increasingly unpopular in the state, with opposition rising by nine percentage points since the summer, according to the WMUR poll.
That is not unlike the political environment that propelled Brown to his stunning 2010 victory in Massachusetts, a win dubbed “the Scott heard round the world.” It proved an early sign of the rocky road ahead for the health-care law.
Brown, however, has insisted that political opportunity is not what drew him to New Hampshire.
In a blunt and emotional speech Thursday night to students at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., Brown focused more on his past than his future.
He recounted his dark, turbulent childhood: an absent father, a troubled mother who was briefly on welfare, two episodes of sexual abuse and an arrest when he was 13 years old for shoplifting record albums. He lauded the judge who set him straight by forcing him to write an essay on why he did not want to end up in prison. Judge Samuel Zoll was the first authority figure who had not written him off as “a loser,” Brown said.
Now, “I’m 54 years old. I’ve been a senator. I’ve had, I feel, a productive, successful political career,” he said. “Is there more? I don’t know.”
His recent move, he said, was an attempt “to get balance,” which is something he learned early not to take for granted.
“It was just time — middle age, new opportunities and new challenges, and the ability to kind of reestablish the family unit,” he told the students. “My mom and I were not close at all growing up. I mean, we’re talking ba-bang, ba-bang, ba-bang — just knocking heads all the time. But now we’re in a new chapter in our lives, where we have the ability to kind of reconnect. And I’m not going to lie — it’s been surprisingly refreshing and rewarding.
“So not everything is about politics,” he added.
Brown also suggested that his two years in the Senate had left him all but hopeless about getting anything done in a place where so few are willing to stray from their party ranks.
“Defeatist?” he said, when one student told him that was how he sounded. “Yeah, I’m a little frustrated. I’m not going to lie. I’m frustrated at the debt. I’m frustrated at the lack of communication and respect for people down there.”
Since leaving the Senate, he has landed a lucrative post with a prestigious law firm, maintained a busy speaking schedule and signed a contract with Fox News Channel, which has occasionally asked Brown to sub for its star conservative host Bill O’Reilly.
“Who else can say they’ve been a replacement for not only Bill O’Reilly but Ted Kennedy?” he joked.
One of his ventures caused some embarrassment last week when an email distributed under his name turned out to be a pitch from a controversial doctor known for warning against vaccines and fluoridated water. Brown had rented his email list to a conservative media company, Newsmax, which had sent the email offering “5 Signs You’ll Get Alzheimer’s Disease.”
“While the issue of Alzheimer’s is personal to me and an issue I have been working on for years, I did not approve or authorize the sending of this particular email,” Brown told WMUR. “Due to this and other issues, I am terminating my relationship with this vendor effective immediately.”
If Brown decides to run, he will not be guaranteed an easy primary. Gun rights advocates, angry at his support for an assault-weapons ban, showed up to protest an event where he spoke in December. And there are already several declared GOP candidates, including former Senator Bob Smith, who has been living in Florida; Jim Rubens, a former state senator; and conservative activist Karen Testerman.
Democrats are emphasizing that point, as well as the carpetbagger criticism.
“Scott Brown faces a traditionally conservative Republican primary against conservative candidates who are actually from New Hampshire,” said state Democratic Party spokesman Harrell Kirstein. “If he survives that, he’ll face an even tougher general election against Jeanne Shaheen.”
Others argue that this is simply the wrong race for someone with Brown’s national profile.
“He does better as a presidential candidate than he does as a Senate candidate,” said Andy Smith, who directs the University of New Hampshire poll.
Smith said a second loss in a Senate race could effectively end Brown’s political career, while a presidential bid offers potential consolation prizes: a spot on the ticket, a Cabinet post, a cable TV show.
Were he to run and win, Brown would not be the first person to have represented more than one state in the U.S. Senate. In the 1800s, an Irish immigrant named James Shields was elected in three states over the course of 30 years: Illinois, then Minnesota, then Missouri.
As for Brown, he seems in no hurry to end the speculation.
“I do things my own way, at my own pace,” he said.
He views Shaheen, he said, as “a rubber stamp” for Obama, and he said he will be working toward her defeat, even if from the sidelines.
“As a new resident of New Hampshire, I’m saying: ‘You know what? I could do better.’ As a matter of fact, other people could do better,” Brown added. “Whether it’s me or somebody else, I’m not sure yet. But I’m playing a role.”