Why Scott Brown’s no sure bet to run for U.S. Senate from New Hampshire

December 3, 2013

Scott Brown has nodded in New Hampshire's direction no fewer than three times in the last week.

While it may seem like the Republican is gearing up for a run against Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), it's far from a sure bet that he will make a bid.

First, let's look at what exactly the former U.S. senator from Massachusetts has been doing to get on the New Hampshire radar.

His most prominent move came in the form of a Tuesday FoxNews.com op-ed in which he criticized the impact of the federal health-care law on the Granite State and appeared to take an indirect swipe at Shaheen's effort to extend the law's enrollment deadline. Before that, he dropped the "MA" from his Twitter handle, seen as another potential sign he might challenge Shaheen. Now comes word that he will keynote a holiday reception for the New Hampshire state GOP later this month.

Under normal circumstances, it would all be interpreted as a precursor to a campaign. But in this case, that's not the conclusion to draw.

Here's why:

For one thing, if the former Massachusetts senator wants to return to elected office, he sure isn't walking the most pragmatic path. He passed in August on what was arguably his least difficult road back when he declined to run for governor of Massachusetts. It's an office Republicans have shown they can win in recent years, and the field looked pretty open at the time Brown made his decision.

A subsequent interview in which Brown explained why he chose not to run also suggested that he has his eyes on something other than another U.S. Senate bid. "I have a very, I think, powerful message that needs to be told, that people are asking me to go around the country and the world to give them about the dysfunctionalilty of the Senate, and about Congress, and about the lack of balance here in Massachusetts," he told WBZ.

That sure sounds like someone with an eye on a bigger national role in the GOP.

Third, Shaheen is pretty popular right now. A recent WMUR Granite State poll showed her sporting a 57 percent favorable rating. While it's true that the problems with Obamacare's rollout could make the Democrats a lot more vulnerable in the long run, Shaheen simply isn't begging for a challenge yet.

Finally, there are the carpetbagging charges Brown would face is he runs. He owns a vacation home in New Hampshire but is viewed as more Bay State than Granite State, strategists in both parties told The Fix earlier this year. The potential complication is enough to give most pols pause, even under otherwise favorable circumstances.

So, if Brown isn't about to announce a Senate run, what's he up to? The most plausible answer is that he simply wants to stay relevant in the political conversation. Flirting with New Hampshire, the site of a U.S. Senate race and the first-in-the-nation presidential primary, allows him to do that.

Moreover, if the political climate turns disastrous for Democrats, and Brown's path to victory against Shaheen suddenly looks much easier, he will be in a better position to launch a bid after laying some groundwork in the state. He very deliberately has not ruled out a Senate run at any point this year. And he's even beginning to win over cynics.

"I’ve been among those skeptical about Senator Brown most of the year – but the announcement today that he is doing an event for the NH GOP, coming on the heels of the Bob Smith announcement [that he is running against Shaheen], is the first thing I’ve seen that suggests he may be getting serious about this," said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party.

Brown didn't immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

Brown's 2010 special election upset was one of the most remarkable electoral surprises in years. But his Senate tenure was short-lived as he lost to now-Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) last year. Now, Brown's next act remains up in the air. But he's a savvy enough pol to know that for one to be possible, he needs to be relevant.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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