Scott Brown's triumphant makeover

The Massachusetts senator has pulled ahead of Elizabeth Warren in the polls by running away from the Tea Party

Published March 8, 2012 5:42PM (EST)

U.S. Senator Scott Brown      (Hyungwon Kang / Reuters)
U.S. Senator Scott Brown (Hyungwon Kang / Reuters)

The so-called People’s Pledge seemed like a somewhat gimmicky win-win proposition for both incumbent Republican Sen. Scott Brown and his Democratic challenger, Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren, in their race for the seat once held by Ted Kennedy. The idea, proposed by Brown, was to staunch the flow of super PAC money into the race with an agreement of elegant simplicity: If a candidate is attacked by name in an ad, then the one who comes off looking better is obliged to donate half the cost of the ad buy to a charity of the other candidate's choice. Pretty simple: Why shoot yourself in the foot, right?

The trick in the gimmick became clear this week when Brown announced that he was holding up his end of the pledge, agreeing to pay half the costs of an ad from a group called Coalition of Americans for Political Equality (CAPE PAC) and asking it to pull its Google ads promoting him. The group's website is now offline. Jeff Loyd, a Tea Party activist from Arizona who chairs the PAC, confirmed that his group spent all of $673.99 in pro-Brown online advertising with Google.

Brown's ostentatious willingness to be the first to trigger the enforcement mechanism against himself displays a street-smart opportunism that the Warren camp, for all her populist credentials, lacks. Far from shooting himself in the foot, the penalty amounts to $327 out of the $13 million in his campaign coffers. It was money well spent to help burnish his image as a moderate and man of the people, even as he raises more than $2 for Warren's every $1. (Warren has raised $6 million to date.)

“Sen. Brown is a man of his word,” Brown's campaign manager, Jim Barnett, trumpeted in a letter to CAPE PAC. “And as a result of your advertising on his behalf, he will honor the agreement by paying out of his campaign account an amount equal to 50 percent of your spending. In short,” the letter continued, “while your advertising on his behalf is clearly intended to be helpful, it is actually costing his campaign valuable resources."

CAPE PAC's Loyd said he killed the ads reluctantly at Brown's request.

“We regret the candidates in this race are asking for groups like ours to suspend our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms to campaign in support of whatever candidates we choose,” he said. “However, we respect the wishes of our supporters and as such will honor their requests to suspend our advertising campaign in support of Senator Brown.”

The statement from Brown’s campaign stressed that this was the very first time that either candidate had taken tangible action to enforce the pledge: “Notably, two pro-Warren groups, ReThinkBrown and BoldProgressives, also ran Google ads after the signing of the historic People’s Pledge,” it added pointedly, putting Warren on the defensive.

The Warren campaign seemed to be slightly caught off guard by the GOP attempt to co-opt the money-in-politics issue. It found itself in the unenviable position of having to acknowledge Brown's move to honor the pledge, even while defending itself against a cheap shot thrown late.

“To the best of our knowledge, those ads [bought by ReThinkBrown and Bold Progressives] were run prior to the [Jan. 23] pledge and were taken down almost immediately,” Warren spokeswoman Alethea Harney told Salon. “We've asked Warren supporters to provide us with suggestions for the charity,” she added.

Defanging Warren on her big issue -- money in politics -- is a smart tactic for a Republican looking to get reelected in the most liberal state in the country. By not acting like a Republican, and sometimes reaching across the aisle, Brown has stood out as a voice of reason in the GOP wilderness who sticks with his party only 54 percent of his time, according to a Congressional Quarterly study of his 2011 voting record.

After an initial burst of enthusiasm that launched Warren’s campaign with great fanfare last fall, the Brown campaign has eclipsed her. Warren, who was leading a few weeks ago, now trails by 9 and 10 points, according to two recent polls. By compromising with the president now and then, and distancing himself from the Tea Party movement that swept him into office, Brown never misses a chance to tout his record as a flexible pragmatist. All mention of the Tea Party has been scrubbed from his site.

While Brown voted against tax hikes on the rich, he has gone against the GOP grain by backing a sweeping bill to curb insider trading by members of Congress; Republican leaders favored a narrower bill. He also supported the Obama administration's plan to allow homeowners to refinance their mortgages if they are "underwater," owing more than what their homes are worth.

At the same time, Brown has sided with Big Oil consistently and supported an effort by fellow Republicans to ban the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases linked to global warming. Most egregiously, he stood squarely with the Senate GOP on contraception, co-sponsoring the narrowly defeated Blunt Amendment that would have permitted employers and insurers to restrict access to birth control.

Yet this proved to be a safe gamble in Massachusetts with its large number of Roman Catholics who use birth control faithfully. Even if most parishioners who make it to the pews each Sunday believe insurers should offer contraception in their employee healthcare benefits package, they don't mind if their senator takes the same stand that's preached from the pulpit. That issue, stalking Romney through the primaries, has not hurt Brown much, even after Brown was roundly condemned by the Kennedy clan for misrepresenting his predecessor's position on contraception.

Brown's new persona was on display last week when he told a group of military veterans on the north shore of Boston a colorful tale about how he managed to get Obama on board with his insider trading bill by calling out to the president after his State of the Union speech.

"The whole row cleared out and, therefore, I actually get to walk up right next to the aisle as the president’s coming up, and I’m saying to myself, ‘Man! He wants an insider trading bill. I have one,’” Brown told the vets. “So I said, ‘Mr. President, my insider trading bill is on Harry Reid’s desk. Tell him to get it out.’ And he looked right at me and he says, ‘I will. I’ll tell him to get it out.’ Problem was he was miked up live with Fox.”

Brown boasted dubiously that the exchange brought the bill to the Senate floor where it passed, proof, he said, that he "gets things done." It's a winning strategy for a Republican in Massachusetts, and he only needs to look at his latest polling numbers, which show him leading among independents, voters under 50, voters over 65, and in central and western Massachusetts, according to the most recent survey from Western New England University.

The departure of Maine's GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe, the most bipartisan member of Congress, also served to boost Brown, as she gave him a ringing endorsement on Thursday. "In an institution characterized by gridlock and partisanship, Scott Brown is a much-needed breath of fresh air," Snowe said in a statement.

As Brown bobs and weaves to the center, Warren has to figure out how to lay a glove on him. She hasn't done so in a while.

By Patrick Tracey

Patrick Tracey, author of "Stalking Irish Madness: Searching for the Roots of My Family's Schizophrenia," is a writer in Boston.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2012 Elections Elizabeth Warren Scott Brown