RYE, N.H. — “Test, test, test, one, two, three, hello,” Scott Brown said into a microphone, trying to talk over the strains of the glam metal band FireHouse.
Brown is hosting a party in a barn, and while the music is pumping, the microphone isn’t working — a problem, because a presidential candidate will soon need to use it. Brown eats a pretzel stick, takes a swig from a can of Miller Lite, fiddles with the cord and the mixer, and does a mike check. This time it works.
“Ah, I’ve got to plug it in,” he said. “Plugging it in helps, ladies and gentlemen.”
A former U.S. and state senator, retired Army National Guard colonel, a television pundit and a former magazine centerfold, Brown, 56, has taken on a new role in the world of New Hampshire politics: party host. Brown and his wife, television reporter Gail Huff, are hosting a series of “no-B.S.” backyard barbecues, inviting all of the Republican presidential candidates to participate. So far, eight have shown up, and at least one more is expected.
The no-frills, do-it-yourself affairs are Brown’s attempt to stay relevant in a raucous presidential primary season — and in a state where Brown is trying to find his place in the political landscape after moving here a few years ago from Massachusetts to run for Senate (he lost).
“It’s not about me,” Brown insisted as he stood by the sound booth. Instead, he said, it’s a way for people to hear from the candidates for free in a relaxed setting. But soon enough, Brown heads over to shake the hand of the New Hampshire House speaker.
“I get the ability to see a lot of people who were very helpful in my campaign and stay active in the process of New Hampshire being the first-in-the-nation-primary state and listening and learning,” he said.
Brown shocked the political world by winning the late Edward M. Kennedy’s Senate seat in a 2010 special election. Two years later, he lost it. He moved to New Hampshire full time and ran for Senate here last year, but he lost that race, too.
Now, he’s hosting barbecues.
The couple provide plenty of hot dogs, potato chips and cases of beer and soda. They joined BJ’s Wholesale Club just to buy bulk supplies for the barbecues, and they said they expect to spend about $15,000 by the end of the primary season (though the bulk of that is accounted for in the $1,000 check he gives each candidate). Brown extends a mass invite via Facebook, and he drops off invitations to his neighbors on his daily runs around Rye.
“No holds barred, no handlers, no fluff and that’s why we call it the no-B.S. barbecue,” he said. The whole thing was the brainchild of his wife.
Carly Fiorina drew 450 people earlier this year, he said. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee showed up, as did New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former New York governor George Pataki and former Florida governor Jeb Bush. The price of admission to Bush’s event was a canned good that Brown will take to the local food pantry in the truck he drove around Massachusetts during his successful Senate run.
Brown and Huff used to hold the barbecues at their house, but they moved to a neighbor’s barn once the weather grew cold. He brings the food and a sound system that he bought for his daughter, Ayla, a singer and former “American Idol” contestant.
“Sound guy Scott, they call me,” he said.
At a recent barbecue, Brown hosted Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a buddy from the Senate. The two saw one another in the gym and frequented Chinese restaurants after business hours.
Graham was set to arrive soon, and now that the sound was fixed, Brown needed to get everything else in place. He walked outside to a clearing under an apple tree where a grill was set up. He sliced open a few packages of hot dogs and told some college Republicans from the University of New Hampshire that he needed them to man the hot dogs with a pair of tongs in the shape of a guitar.
Graham soon arrived, jacketless in the chilly New Hampshire afternoon.
“What’s up, Senator?” Brown said.
The two shook hands, and Graham said the barn is nicer than his house.
“You didn’t tell me it was this cold . . . you lied,” Graham said. Then he told Brown he had to go “do a commercial thing” and would be back soon.
“Don’t screw it up,” Brown said.
Brown said he’s been plenty busy since losing the Senate election last year. He has been working for Fox News, and he said he will work Fox Business Network’s Republican presidential debate this week . He just got back from China, where he spoke about a visa program. His swimming coach for the triathlons he’s been doing was a guest at the barbecue, milling around and drinking a Coors Light. When asked what his triathlon time is, Brown said, “fast.”
He said he’s been “racing tris, playing the guitar, spending time with the kids, coaching eighth-grade basketball.”
Brown was in the news this year for hawking a diet supplement — an assertion he said was “bulls---.” It was one of those arrangements where you get 15 percent off when you sign up to be a distributor, he said.
“It’s like going to Macy’s and signing up for a credit card,” he said. “I don’t need the money, number one.”
Brown recently played the guitar onstage in Boston with Cheap Trick — for the fourth time, he said. Earlier that week he had seen Alice Cooper and Motley Crue, and proudly showed off photos of him hanging backstage with them.
“How was the concert?” a man asked Brown outside.
“Unbelievable,” Brown said. “One of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. Alice has still got it.”
On this night, Brown’s job was to ensure that everyone enjoyed themselves. He worked the crowd like a practiced politician and party guy, shaking hands, giving face time to the politicos in the crowd and repeatedly making entreaties for people to grab beers and hot dogs and even more beer. He reminded people that the beverages would stay outside and had the college students bring aluminum trays of hot dogs inside the barn, where they were placed on a table with vats of pretzels and Goldfish crackers.
“It’s hot dogs. It’s low-budget. But that’s part of the no-bulls---,” Huff said.
A few dozen people milled about — under a tree with flaming red leaves and inside the barn, which was decked out with lanterns from a wedding the owners held there last year, political signs, Christmas lights, old skis and a huge American flag.
“Step into our office,” Brown said to an attendee as he pulled the barn doors open. Dried corn husks hung over the handles.
“You look tan, you going to the tanning booths?” a woman asked Brown.
“No, I work him like a dog,” the triathlon coach said. Another friend razzed him for not being at the gym that day; Brown swore he was there in the morning.
After a little more mingling and hot dog eating, a few dozen people sat down in metal folding chairs set up in the barn, and Brown grabbed the microphone.
“I went to Home Depot and got a heater out back, so we took the chill off,” Brown said. “Thank you,” he said as the crowd applauded.
Brown gave shoutouts to the college Republicans and politicos in the audience and launched into his introduction of Graham, one of the “nicest, most honest, most hardworking” people Brown had ever met.
Graham, the only guy in a suit, sounded more like a standup comedian than a presidential candidate.
“I do weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, friendly divorces,” he said.
“If you’re drinking, keep drinking. This is going to sound better over time. My favorite subject? Me,” he said, launching into his life story and stump speech.
Graham then sounded very much like a person with a dire view of the world, laying out the bleak state of the nation’s affairs. He vowed to go into the Middle East and annihilate the Islamic State. The United States, meanwhile, is on the brink of fiscal collapse.
The candidate reverted to a slightly more rosy view of things, vowing that if he were elected, both parties would try to solve problems in the White House while having a cocktail.
“We’re gonna get liquored up and we’re gonna solve problems,” Graham said.
“Let’s start right here. Bring the beers in, come on!” Brown said.
Brown acted like a talk-show host, taking the microphone around for people to ask questions. While Graham talked about infrastructure spending, Brown walked around the barn, holding out a ceramic bowl filled with candy with one hand and stuffing potato chips into his mouth with the other.
One guest told Graham he had never seen the country so polarized. He asked whether Graham plans to work with Democrats. Absolutely, the candidate said — then touted his efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform with other senators.
“If you got tattoos from being in the congressional gang, I would have an armful of them.”
Brown stood toward the back of the seating area, ready to give the microphone to an attendee after announcing that it would be the last question.
“We’re gonna get liquored up after this. It’s a real barn-burner. Get it?” Brown asked.
“Don’t quit your day job, Scott,” Graham said.
“I don’t have a day job,” Brown said.