Move over John Thune, there’s a new dragon slayer in the Senate.
Scott Brown, who claimed the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) seat with a come-from-behind special election win on Tuesday night, will be hailed by Republicans as the conquering hero when he arrives on Capitol Hill on Thursday, much as Thune was after he defeated then-Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) in 2004.
But how Brown behaves once he is sworn in to the Senate is an entirely open question, given the limited role he played as one of a very small minority of Republicans in the Massachusetts state Senate.
During the campaign, the third-term state Senator appealed to voters across the ideological spectrum, from disaffected independents to moderate, traditional northeastern Republicans to “tea party— activists. But he will have a much harder time keeping all those entities happy while casting votes. And with a tough re-election battle already looming in the Democratic-leaning state in 2012, political considerations will compete with his party loyalties.
Brown has already made clear that he does not intend to govern ideologically nor toe a party line. Speaking at a Wednesday morning press conference in Boston, he said his election could indicate “a new breed of Republican coming to Washington … who is not beholden to the special interests of the party and will look just to solve problems.—
“If people are expecting an ideologue to come down from Massachusetts, that’s not what they’re going to get,— said Massachusetts Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei, a Republican who has known Brown for 25 years and worked with him in the state House and Senate. “He is going to look at every issue to figure out what’s best for the state.—
“Nationally he’ll be seen, eventually anyway, as a moderate Republican,— predicted Massachusetts-based Republican strategist Rob Gray. Although some in Brown’s home state characterize him as a conservative, Gray said “we’re graded on a different scale than on the national scale.—
The most consistent portrayal of Brown among Massachusetts political observers is of a politician talented at retail politics and heavily focused on parochial issues.
“Knowing Scott, I think he’ll be a road warrior. He won’t spend any more time than necessary in Washington,— Gray said. He said that, as a state Senator, Brown “focused very strongly on his district,— which encompasses a swath of Boston bedroom communities to the south of the state, along the border with Rhode Island.
“He’s going to be doing all the chicken dinners, the barbecues,— agreed Tisei. “I think he’s going to be in the state a lot over the next few years, and I think people are going to like that.—
On the policy front, the picture is a bit hazier. Given the small size of the GOP contingent in the state Legislature — they make up less than 10 percent of the Members in both chambers — the party’s legislators “are irrelevant,— said Jeffrey Berry, political science professor at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. As a result, Brown will arrive with more influence in Washington, D.C., than he had built in Boston, Berry said.
Brown, added Berry, will have to “find some issues that have a high payoff for moderates here.—
Tisei said that in the state Senate, Brown “was pretty much the avowed expert on veterans issues,— in part because of his nearly three decades of service in the Massachusetts National Guard. He also worked on “a lot of law-and-order issues,— Tisei said, including those related to sex offenders and drunken driving.
However, Tisei noted, the issues Brown ran on “were really jobs, the economy, spending and taxes.— An avowed “free market advocate,— Brown opposed the stimulus package on the campaign trail and railed against high taxes, accusing his opponent, Attorney General Martha Coakley (D), of being a traditional tax-and-spend liberal.
“I think he’ll try and be a strong player on fiscal discipline and spending and reform,— Gray agreed.
One Massachusetts Republican strategist, however, predicted that “Scott will be a political player but not a policy player.—
“That’s his reputation in Massachusetts and I’d expect the same in the Senate,— the strategist said.
He’ll no doubt be a star in Washington. And as the latest dragon slayer, Brown now has a national donor base he can tap, for himself and others in the GOP.
The Brown campaign declined to speculate how much money Brown has left in his campaign coffers, but it is expected to be sizable. A Brown aide also said there had been no discussions yet about how Brown intends to use his new-found fame to help the party.
But Gray said that given the excitement and energy Brown’s campaign generated, he is bound to “be in demand nationally as a surrogate and a name on fundraising invitations.—
And the Massachusetts Republican Party can certainly use his help as they seek to unseat unpopular Gov. Deval Patrick (D) in the fall.
Brown’s survival in the Senate also hinges on his ability to tap all those political skills again when Kennedy’s term expires in 2012. “The Democrats will make him one of their primary targets,— said Berry, who said the political landscape could be very different by then, and noted President Barack Obama will be on the top of the ticket.
“There will be a long line of people that contend for the [Democratic] nomination,— Berry continued, adding that Sen. Kennedy’s widow, Vicki, could come under growing pressure to run for the seat, despite ruling it out in 2009.
Mark Williams, chairman of TeaPartyExpress.org, one of the conservative third-party groups supporting Brown in the special election, said the Republican vote and the tea party vote would be with Brown in 2012, even if he doesn’t govern from the ideological right at all times. Williams was not bothered, for example, by the fact that Brown supports some abortion rights, saying that was not an issue in the race.
The Senator-elect may “take some heat from around the country on the health care issue— because he has said he’d be open to “some sort of Plan B— to help cover the uninsured, Williams said. In fact, as a state Senator Brown voted in favor of Massachusetts health care legislation, which requires nearly every resident to obtain health insurance.
But contrary to the “civil war— storyline that has dogged the Republican Party, Williams said the tea party faithful are less concerned about drawing lines in the sand on specific issues and more with the responsiveness of those in power.
“All they expect of their politicians is honesty, transparency and to be heard,— Williams said of his coalition of tea party activists. “If he’s seen ignoring people, that’s a different story.—