Scott Brown’s cold feet

All those fears about Democrats losing John Kerry's seat may be melting away before our eyes

Topics: Opening Shot, Scott Brown, John Kerry, Ed Markey, William Weld,

The working assumption of every Democrat in Massachusetts and Washington has been that Scott Brown will enter the special Senate election to replace John Kerry, and there have been indications in the past week that he was preparing to do just that. But now there’s this, from veteran Boston Globe reporter Frank Phillips:

With time running short, Washington Republicans have begun a “full court press’’ to persuade an increasingly reluctant Scott Brown to run in the special election to replace John F. Kerry, say two leading Massachusetts GOP figures.

The eleventh-hour effort, coordinated by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, comes as those familiar with Brown’s deliberations are becoming convinced that he will not run and instead will look for a job in the private sector.

The Republican panic stems from a belief that Brown is their party’s best – and only – hope of winning back a seat in deep blue Massachusetts. That view is well-grounded. Brown is the only Republican to win a Senate seat from the state since 1972 and the only Bay State Republican since 1994 to win federal office. And despite his eight-point defeat to Elizabeth Warren last November, he remains broadly popular with the electorate – enough that a poll this week put him slightly ahead of the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, Ed Markey, and close to the 50 percent mark.

Because there are no GOP House members from the state, because their state legislative ranks are so thin, and because it’s been so long since the party notched any non-Brown successes at the statewide level (Mitt Romney in 2002 was their previous triumph), the Republican bench in the state is essentially nonexistent.

The next strongest candidate would probably be Charlie Baker, who waged a credible, if somewhat uninspiring, campaign for governor in 2010, losing to Deval Patrick by eight points. Baker is very interested in seeking the governorship again in 2014, when Patrick is due to step down, and on Thursday flatly ruled out a Senate bid in an interview with the Boston Herald.

Another option for Republicans – one Baker himself suggested on Thursday – would be William Weld, who served as governor from 1991 to 1997. Weld’s 1990 election was a bit of a fluke, with Democrats nominating a culturally conservative firebrand, John Silber, who managed to lose such liberal bastions as Cambridge, Amherst and Provincetown. But as governor, Weld was a hit with the public particularly when he traveled to his party’s 1992 national convention in Houston to speak up for abortion rights, a move that led to loud boos from the crowd. In his 1994 reelection campaign, Weld crushed Democrat Mark Roosevelt by 42 points, a modern record for a Bay State governor. But the reluctance of the electorate to send Republicans to Washington was affirmed two years after that, when Weld fell seven points short in a challenge to John Kerry.

Soon thereafter, Weld embraced a battle for an ambassadorship to Mexico that he knew would be blocked by then-Sen. Jesse Helms, resigned the governorship and moved to New York, ultimately seeking the GOP nomination for governor there in a disastrous 2006 effort. He endorsed Barack Obama’s presidential bid in 2008, but reemerged last year as a vocal supporter of his old Massachusetts friend Mitt Romney, and has since made a splashy move back to the Bay State.

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A Weld entry into the race would stir national attention, but he would be a decided longshot. It’s been 17 years since his name was on a Massachusetts ballot; among older voters (and media members and political professionals, for that matter) there remains some irritation with his abrupt abandonment of his job and the state back in the ‘90s, and a whole new generation of voters in the state has come of age since the height of his popularity. A December poll showed Weld lagging 14 points behind a generic Democratic nominee, with Brown leading by eight.

If Weld doesn’t go, the name of Kerry Healey, Romney’s lieutenant governor, has also been mentioned. But Healey, who was crushed in two state legislative races before joining Romney’s ticket in 2002, never developed much of a constituency; on her own, she lost to Patrick in a 21-point landslide in 2006. Gabriel Gomez, a former Navy Seal with no political history, is also mulling the race, according to the new Globe report.

Brown’s reluctance is understandable. As I’ve written, running for federal office in Massachusetts is a particular challenge, given the state’s hostility to the national GOP brand. Brown absolutely could win a special election this year, with turnout presumably lower than it was last fall, when the presidential race (and the magnetic pull of Warren) pulled more core Democratic core voters to the polls. But a second loss in a year would threaten Brown’s long-term viability, possibly turning him from a one-time rising star to a has-been. And even if he were to win, he’d have to run again in 2014, when Kerry’s term expires – meaning he’d face the same impossible balancing act (casting votes as a somewhat loyal Republican in Washington while simultaneously waging a campaign in blue state Massachusetts) that bedeviled him from 2010 to 2012.

Perhaps adding to Brown’s concerns: His handpicked candidate for state GOP chairwoman barely won her race on Thursday night, fending off her opponent by two points. Brown partisans had made a plea to state Republicans to use the election to make a strong statement of loyalty to him, but that’s not exactly the message the results delivered.

Politically, the smart option for Brown has been clear for some time: Sit this race out and run for governor in 2014. His popularity would probably allow him to nudge Baker aside in that race (some Republicans in the state have already floated a Brown-Baker ticket) and the national GOP brand wouldn’t hinder him as much – as Weld, Paul Cellucci, and Romney can all attest.

That may well be where his head is now – that if he has one comeback race in him, he might as well maximize his odds. Running for Senate would be a huge risk. National Republicans surely grasp this, but you can also understand their desire to push him into the race: Without him, it probably won’t be much of a contest.

Steve Kornacki
Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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